Ariella Van Luyn, Treading air (Review)

Arielle Van Luyn, Treading airIt wasn’t until I reached the end of Ariella Van Luyn’s debut novel, Treading air, that I discovered it was loosely based on the life of a real person. I’m glad it happened that way. I like introductions, but I always read them last because I like to come to my reading as unencumbered as possible – and totally unencumbered I was with this one. Even the title gives nothing away.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find the first page labelled “Brisbane 1945”, because I spent some of my formative years in Brisbane, albeit rather later than 1945. I was even more surprised, a couple of chapters in, to find a section labelled “Townsville 1922”, because my Mum was born in Townsville at the end of that decade, and I visited it a few times in my youth. There, see how I’ve sneakily given you the historical setting –  and implied the structure – without specifically saying so?

Now, let’s get to the story. As Van Luyn explains in her acknowledgements at the end of the novel, it concerns Elizabeth (Lizzie) O’Dea, aka Betty Knight/O’Brian/Stewart/Johnson, who was born in Brisbane around the turn of the 20th century*. She married Joe O’Dea and moved to Townsville in 1922 where Joe was promised a job. However, as Van Luyn tells it, Joe soon loses that job, and Lizzie, with few work skills, becomes a prostitute, which she sees as far more lucrative, and yes, less demeaning, than the domestic work her mother had done. From there, life becomes increasingly challenging … but, I’ll leave the plot here, because there are other things to discuss.

The novel opens in Brisbane’s lock hospital where Lizzie’s been sent by a magistrate. This opening set-up gives me a great opportunity to discuss how Van Luyn uses fiction and history to construct her character and story. Brisbane’s Courier Mail and the Townsville Daily Bulletin both report on a case at that time: Lizzie is accused of “attempting to steal £20” which brings about a “bond” (deferred) sentence on 8 May 1945. The Courier-Mail writes

“It is rather remarkable,” said Mr. Wilson, “that in this long list of stealing convictions she has never been given a chance to see if she could reform. “We will just try it for an experiment. …” Mr. Wilson ordered O’Dea to enter into a bond to come up for sentence if called upon within six months. “We will both thank you, sir,” said the woman as she left the dock.

Mr Wilson’s “experiment” idea resulted from O’Dea arguing that she wanted a chance to be there for her husband Joe’s imminent release from his 20-year prison sentence.

However, the “crime” Van Luyn uses in the opening of her novel is Lizzie’s stealing “tins of bully beef and some US army blankets”. This crime actually occurred in 1944 and the court case in October of that year resulted in a fine of £5. Here is Van Luyn’s story of the court case in her opening chapter:

At first, in the police court, surrounded by dark wood, she couldn’t make sense of what Mr Wilson was saying about Joe. In a wig that hung down his cheeks, he looked at her medical report and decided to be generous: only six weeks in the lock hospital to recover [because she’d been found to have “the clap”]. He said when Joe got out a few days after she had, they could start a new life together. “We’ll try it for an experiment,” Wilson said, and Lizzie wanted to stick her fingers in his eyeballs. She isn’t a bloody lab rat.

My marginalia here is: “feisty, independent”. So, I have two points to make. One is that Van Luyn shifts a crime of which Lizzie was accused to a different time because, presumably, it’s a more interesting time, narratively speaking. And the other is that, instead of having Lizzie thank Mr Wilson, Van Luyn has her responding (internally, anyhow) in a feisty manner to establish Lizzie as an independent woman, a survivor. For an historian, these “plays” with the facts would be unforgivable, but for Van Luyn, they enable her to engage the reader in the story and quickly establish the sort of person she believes, from her research, that Lizzie was. In other words, Van Luyn plays with the “facts” to create her “truth”. As she is writing fiction, I have no problem with that! Do you?

The other main point I want to make about this book draws from Sulari Gentill’s comments at the Canberra Writers Festival. She said she likes to find interesting but forgotten people. I understood this to mean working class people and minorities, that is, the “little” people, the women, and those disadvantaged by culture, race, and so on. This is certainly what Van Luyn does here. In addition to Lizzie, a working class woman, she also has Chinese and indigenous characters in Townsville. In this focus on the “forgotten people”, her book reminds me of others I’ve reviewed recently, including Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (my review) about abortionist Rebecca Sinclair, and Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review), which uses fictional people to tell the story of a real situation, the removal of marginalised people from their Milson’s point community to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

“Her life has twisted away from her”

Back to the story. It’s told third person, but from Lizzie’s perspective, and alternates between the 1920s and the mid 1940s, so we know at the beginning that Lizzie’s been “on the game” and is a survivor. Several dramas occur during the novel – including a murder, a shooting, an attempted suicide  – and all these can be found in court records of the time. Van Luyn doesn’t over-sensationalise these, any more than she does Lizzie’s life as a prostitute. She is, though, explicit in her descriptions, giving us a picture of a lusty, resourceful young woman who’s determined to survive. Life is tough going, however. Lizzie, like Townsville, is “unformed”, but Joe, she comes to realise, “can’t look after her” as she’d hoped, so “she has to look after herself”. Moreover, although prostitution is more lucrative than domestic work, she’s not very good at saving – not surprisingly, given her upbringing – so the gap between the dream of an independent future and the reality stays wide for much of the novel.

It’s to Van Luyn’s credit that she has managed to create out of a scrappy historical record a character who, petty criminal though she is, not only comes alive but engages us fully. This is not a sentimental story, but it nonetheless reminds us that not everyone gets a lucky start in life. There are Lizzies still amongst us today. This is the sort of historical fiction I enjoy.

awwchallenge2016Ariella Van Luyn
Treading air
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925344011

(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)

* Researching Trove, I found several court reports in which her age wanders around wildly, suggesting birthdates anywhere between 1893 to 1902.

21 thoughts on “Ariella Van Luyn, Treading air (Review)

  1. This is the type of historical fiction that I enjoy, too, Sue. Please, please, steer away from the lords and ladies and prime ministers, and tell me about the people among whom my ancestors lived. Well – not mine exactly since I have no Australian heritage, but – you know what I mean 😉

    Thanks for the introduction to Treading Air. I’m going to try to find it here in my Nova Scotia backwater. (Thank goodness for Amazon and its ilk.)

    • Yes, I know what you mean … I think it was all those high society and/or bodice ripping books that my school friends read which turned me off historical fiction. I didn’t read them, just knew they weren’t for me. I wanted something more real.

  2. I agree, Debbie. Just recently I came across *another* historical novel about the Tudors, by an Australian author, and I thought, why, why, when there are so many interesting people in our own history are we resurrecting stuff from British history ad nauseam!

    • That’s an interesting question, Lisa, that I wondered about re Robyn Cadwallader’s The anchoress in fact, but in her case, it’s a pretty niche area that she has longstanding expertise in, so it made sense. Generally, though, I agree. We have wonderful stories to tell … let’s tell them!

  3. My argument with historical fiction is that a modern author gives us a modern idea of the atmosphere of the time and I would much rather read an author from that time. On the other hand to answer your question directly I think that making one situation representative of a variety of ‘actual’ situations is a valid technique in historical fiction (and even more so in movie making, where time is of the essence).

    • Haha, Bill, my policy is to never say never. I think historical fiction has its place. As some historical fiction writers say, casting a modern eye on past events can sometimes illuminate things we haven’t seen before. That’s what historians do – don’t they? – but it is also something that fiction writers can do too, I think. An author of the time will often see situations/events/people from that time’s perspective – and it’s really useful to read – but modern author will often put a different slant.

      That’s what Kate Grenville wanted to do in The secret river isn’t it. She wanted to explore things that are not in the historical record – or not as we’d been given it? Sometimes things can be found in the historical record when people think to go digging for it, but sometimes it’s just not there – it’s in the gaps and silences because people thought those stories weren’t worth telling. This is where the fiction writer can tease out some ideas I think.

      Also, remember that even Dickens wrote historical fiction – A tale of two cities.

  4. It’s such a vexed question, Bill. Generally I think I agree with you. Better to read Dickens, Austen, Katharine Susannah Pritchard.
    OTOH there are some voices that are not heard in the books of the past. Indigenous voices, gay voices and so on. So sometimes a good historical novel can bring those people into the story where they belong, showing what it was like for them at that time.
    But twaddle about Tudor romances don’t do that!

  5. That comment – interesting but forgotten – strikes a chord with me immediately. I’ve added this one to my TBR: thanks!

  6. I just finished reading Treading Air, and it is not a fun read. It is a sad read, about a woman who survives through hard goings in life. Lizzie, wanted a better life but she kept making bad choices. She is not a likeable character but I did understand her. I like historical fiction that has some truth in the story and the characters are believable. The story reminded me of Ruth Park stories.

    • Thanks Meg … you’re right, she keeps making bad decisions (and when you search Trove you see that she was in and out of courts much of her life). But what role-models had she had in her life to make good ones?

      I’m glad you appreciated it even though you didn’t “like” the main character – I’m often frustrated when that’s the reason people give for not liking a book.

      It reminded me of Ruth Park too – I guess that’s the social realism!

  7. Pingback: September 2016 Roundup: Historical Fiction | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  8. Pingback: Treading Air, by Ariella Van Luyn | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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