I had a little chuckle when, fairly early in Emma Ashmere’s novel, The floating garden, we discover that our main character, Ellis Gilbey, writes a gardening column under the name Scribbly Gum! Good name, I thought. If it hadn’t been for my school song inspiration, this would have been the name for me!
There’s another synchronicity for me, though, and it relates to the setting of this story. Last week I did a presentation on old Australian ads for an organisation I’m involved in. One of those ads was The charmed cup*. It was made in 1929, runs for around 8 minutes (can you believe it?), and is for Bushells tea. It also, coincidentally, contains footage of the Sydney Harbour Bridge mid-construction. It’s this construction which sets the scene for Ashmere’s story … so now, let’s get to it.
The floating garden is set in Sydney in 1926 when construction on the Sydney Harbour Bridge had started and houses in Milson’s Point on the north of the harbour were being demolished with little or no compensation to the residents of those homes. One of those residents is middle-aged Ellis Gilbey, who has run a boarding house for over twenty years. At the novel’s opening the last of her boarders has left and she, with other residents in the street, is hoping against hope that some compensation will be offered. Meanwhile, in a well-to-do part of Sydney, south of the harbour, is 30-something Rennie Howarth, a young English artist who had “taken the outstretched arm of an Australian man she hardly knew and had sailed from everything cold, sad and stale”. Unfortunately that Australian man, Lloyd, who had brought her to a life of luxury, was also abusive.
Part 1 of the novel alternates the story of these two women, with more of the chapters devoted to Ellis. Whether these two women are connected, or are going to be connected, we don’t discover until Part 2 of this three-part novel. While we are wondering about this, Ashmere is busy drawing some parallels between the women – both have experienced brutal men in their lives, Ellis her father and then an employee in a house where she’d lived as a young woman, and of course Rennie her husband; both had toyed with theosophy; and both find themselves house hunting. Another parallel occurs within Ellis’s life when, destitute, she is taken in by an older woman, and then, when that doesn’t work out, destitute again, she is taken in by another older, but this time kinder, woman. These parallels are not laboured, but provide a subtle foundation to the story being told, and help hold it together.
Ashmere’s main focus is Ellis. In her story, we shift between past and present, while Rennie’s story is focused on her present. Ellis, we discover, had run away from her farm home, when she was a teen, after her mother died, and had found herself, rather by accident, in the home of theosophist, Minerva Stranks, aka Strankenstein, around the turn of the century. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire for Ellis, as Minerva is a cruel taskmaster and a charlatan, to boot. Ellis is sexually attracted to Minerva’s other protégé, the pretty Kitty Tate. Her belief that Kitty cares for her helps her survive her time in the house until … well, I won’t give this away, but by the novel’s opening, Ellis had been carrying guilt and regret for twenty-seven years.
We are not given the same depth of background for Rennie’s life before the present, but we learn that she’d had a couple of exhibitions in London before fleeing to Australia with Lloyd, and that she’d been a lively, fun woman before her marriage to a man who physically abused and emotionally manipulated her. In Australia her art changes from “polite English watercolours” to “bolder, flatter, earthier colours” that are all-round too confronting for Lloyd. She represents, as Ashmere explained in an interview on ABC’s Books and Arts Daily, the new modernist art movement, a movement which rejected tradition for something bolder. That’s certainly Rennie.
So, despite the parallels in their lives, Rennie works largely as a foil for Ellis, not only because of their class difference, but because she’s lively and risk-taking against Ellis’ more cautious approach to life, which is understandable given her greater age and particular experiences. If I have a frustration with the novel, it would be that Rennie’s story is not as developed as Ellis’s and that perhaps her main role is to be this foil or plot-device to move Ellis on rather than a character in her own right. This is more observation, though, than complaint, because overall the writing is evocative without being overdone, and the characters are engaging,
What I particularly enjoyed about the novel is that Ashmere does for the underprivileged of 1920s Sydney what Ruth Park did for the 1950s in Harp in the south. They are very different books in terms of their narratives and themes, but both exude warmth and sympathy for their motley crew of marginalised characters, and both are valuable for their social history. In The floating garden this includes evoking the about-to-be dispossessed Milson’s Point community, the charlatan fringe of theosophy, the colour of Paddy’s Markets, the energy of the artistic/bohemian community, and the opening up of land in the rural outskirts of Sydney, in Lane Cove.
The novel’s overall theme has to do with memories, guilt and grief, with the idea that you really can’t move on if you haven’t resolved your past. Late in the novel, as Ellis starts to understand the truth of what had happened all those years ago, Ashmere writes:
She’d grown used to her memories for all these years and now her grief – her guilt – had grown around them in the same way a tree’s trunk grew around a rock until both the rock and the tree risked mutual destruction if prised apart.
But sometimes, there can only be progress if they are prised apart – and prised apart they eventually are, of course.
The floating garden is a very enjoyable book. It deals with real issues honestly but gently, and it brings to life a past world in a way that enhances our understanding of the present.
(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)
* Unfortunately, the ad is broken into three clips on this page. Clip 2 contains the Bridge footage.