Julie Thorndyke, Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby (#BookReview)

Book coverQuaint title, eh? I really didn’t know what to expect when I accepted this book for review, but accept I did because the publisher is a quality little press and because the author, Julie Thorndyke, although unknown to me, has a track record as a writer, particularly of tanka. Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby, however, is her first novel.

In addition, I was intrigued by the advance description of the protagonist as a “semi-retired botanical illustrator … with a penchant for Mozart”. Well, I love botanical illustrations and I’m a fan of Mozart. Who isn’t? And finally, there was the fact that the novel is set in a “peaceful retirement village”. Being of an age that is eligible for retirement village living, that was a bit of a drawcard too.

So far so good, but what sort of book is it? Well, the back cover blurb provides a hint when it says that Mrs Rickaby’s “tranquility is disturbed when close friend and neighbour brings home a twice-widowed younger man of dubious character, and introduces him as her future husband. Petty theft, vandalism and violence disrupt the peaceful retirement village. How can Mrs Rickaby protect her friend from this con-man lover?”

Now we are getting closer. I think the best way to describe this novel is “cosy crime”, which Wikipedia describes as “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” This is not really my genre, any more than any crime is, but Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby turned out to be a light enjoyable read.

The story is told in Mrs Rickaby’s first person voice. She is in her early 70s and had moved to the retirement village after losing her much loved husband. She has two children who, at the start of the novel, are both living overseas, so her most important social contacts are her friends at the village, particularly her neighbour Irene, plus her cat Missy.

It’s a curious book, because it doesn’t, I’d say, perfectly conform to the “cosy crime” genre. Much of it reads like a story about contemporary life, and the challenges of ageing, of losing your partner and having to make a new life for yourself. All this Mrs Rickaby does. Her days are occupied by spending time with Missy, by her involvement in the local Orchid Society, by her free-lance botanical illustration commissions, and by socialising with her friends in the village. It’s only gradually that the crime aspect comes into view as her early suspicions about Irene’s new man, Ralph, start to seem valid. Gradually, the mystery aspect hots up as Mrs Rickaby and another friend from the village, Annette, start nosing around about Ralph in their effort to protect Irene from making a bad, and potentially dangerous, mistake.

I enjoyed reading about Mrs Rickaby’s relationships with family and friends, albeit they were generally easier relationships than those in Charlotte Wood’s The weekend (my review). This is not surprising, perhaps, as most of Mrs Rickaby’s friends are new, and thus free of the years of baggage carried by Wood’s friends who are, coincidentally, in the same early 70s age range. My only demur regarding the characters concerns Irene, “a skilled surgeon” who was still volunteering for Doctors Without Borders”. Could such a person be taken in by such a con man? My initial reaction was not, but perhaps I’m naive? Anyhow …

The narrative is framed by Mrs Rickaby’s love of music. The ten chapters all have musical titles, like Nocturne, Misterioso, Counterpoint, Agitato, and Danse macabre. You can see, by these, how the chapter titles might reflect their content. Threading through all this is one particular song, a favourite of Mrs Rickaby’s, the lullaby “Weigenleid”, which is also the title of the final chapter. Once ascribed to Mozart modern research now suggests otherwise. It is a piece of music that is at once calming and melancholic, making it suited, Mrs Rickaby suggests, to contemplating the end of one’s life …

As you would expect with the “cosy” style, the novel has a light humorous touch. It also has some reflections worth pondering, such as this on loneliness:

It is quite amazing to me how easily habits, both good ones and bad, are formed. The single glass of chardonnay in the evening can easily become a bottle, and then two; one spoon of tiramisu becomes a bowlful; an attentive man becomes a lover to a lonely woman, then her husband, whether or not she wanted or needed one, in her rational mind. But loneliness does odd things to one, and even the simplest of pleasures can become a habit, a need, a necessity.

And this on life from Annette who reassesses her realisation in her forties that “life is short” to:

“Well, now I realise that it’s actually too long … too long and too lonely. The evenings,” she whispers. “Just too many and too long.”

And, this important one:

Investments in friendship are the most vulnerable and irredeemable of assets.

Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby is probably not a book for everyone – then again, what is – but is perfectly suited to those looking for something gentle and reflective, but spiced-up with just a little page-turning twist as well.

Challenge logoJulie Thorndyke
Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby
Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781760417093

(Review copy courtesy the author)

43 thoughts on “Julie Thorndyke, Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby (#BookReview)

  1. Pingback: Julie Thorndyke, Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby (#BookReview) — Whispering Gums ~ DJ-Recycle

  2. Could almost be me, eh ? – but that we in the 8 units aren’t close friends, nor ever will be. Just oldies living around a garden, seeing the even-older oldies push their walkers to and from. We are neighbours, and exchange greetings in friendly fashion; but I can’t relate to this so-frequent description of homes for the [ugh !] elderly.
    Maybe when we join the ranks with walkers ..

    • No I can’t either, M-R. I see “elderly” as people who need actual help to live their lives, not people who are getting on and live in a retirement village where there is usually a bit of additional support but not for actually managing your day-to-day life. Does that make sense? I hate hearing people in their 60s and 70s described as elderly. Even many in their early 80s I wouldn’t describe as elderly.

    • Hey, don’t knock walkers! I’ve got one, and I’m less than 70. Mind you, I need it to hold my oxygen bottle, so I guess I’m atypical. But we should be cheering those pushing walkers, regardless of how slow they are. It means they are out and about, which is much better than veging at home.

      • Neil, I didn’t mean to be knocking ’em, truly .. It was my lazy quick way of painting a picture. I’ve even tried one (at a time when I fell every now and then); and will be HAPPY to use one in the not too distant future, Forgive me, please !

        • You’re forgiven. I reread your post, and I was a little harsh. I recently upgraded my walker to one made of carbon fibre. About 1.5 kg lighter, and it folds sideways instead of back to front. In a pinch, I can fold it and hoist it into the car boot. With the older, heavier, walker, this was a struggle. Roughly double the price, but worth every cent. (I figure there’s the possibility I’ll be using it for twenty years, so may as well try to make life as easy as possible.)

        • Interesting Neil. Dad’s folds sideways though I don’t think it’s made of carbon fibre. However, it is pretty easy for us – though not for him or mum – to hoist into the car boot.

          I’m not sure whether to say I hope you’ll be using it for 20 years or not? Preferably, it would be good if you didn’t need it, but if you do continue to then, yes, 20 years plus we hope!

        • It’s a little tricky for me, but I can do it. I can fold the walker with one hand, and two legs – pull up the seat to get the folding under way, then use my legs to squeeze the two sides together. I need two hands to lift it into the boot, so I put my oxygen down, but it is easy to lift. Not that I need to do it, since G is driving me at the moment, so she does it. But she appreciates how much easier it is. I suspect your parents would struggle. Still, the lighter walker is also easier to push around. And it must be good, I spotted a picture of Harvey Weinstein pushing my brand along!

      • Absolutely Neil… And thanks for standing up for the walker brigade. Like any group they are a mixed bunch. My ma-in-law used one not so much because she was physically frail but because of her eyesight. The walker improved her confidence in getting around immensely.

  3. Who isn’t? I’m not (a fan of Mozart, I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly listened to any). Not a fan of cosy mysteries either, nor particularly of reading about people of my (our) age. M-R’s experience (love the new picture M-R) mirrors mum’s. There’s a lot of people in neighbouring units who are friendly enough but hardly friends.

    • Oh Bill… you probably have heard Mozart.

      But why not read about people one’s own age?

      I can imagine making friends in a retirement village like Mrs Rickaby does. It would be a main reason for moving to one for me. But I can understand that not everyone seeks that. It of course depends on your definition of friendship too.

        • I think you can to a degree Neil, can’t you? In that you can stay engaged in the world and try to keep up with current ideas and thinking (testing them against your own) OR you can resort to seeing everything though an old person’s lens without thought about whether that lens is still applicable. What do you think?

        • Fair enough, Bill! Heard but not listened!

          Not sure what to say about your unchanged reading preferences! I’m not sure that mine have changed substantially either. I have always read books about all ages – it’s more the writers, the writing, and the subject matter that has been and is my focus. I read Astley’s Coda in my 40s and loved it. I read The choke about a young girl in my 60s and loved it.

          So, I still read coming of age books, and books about people in the middle of their careers, etc, etc. However, I am aware of having a special awareness when I’m reading a book about the age/milieu I am at the time I read it.

          What has the age of the protagonists got to do with it, really? Aren’t we interested in lives and ideas?

        • I won’t say never about old people, because E Jolley has some old protagonists, but young people are just learning about life and they make interesting mistakes. I have to work for the next 5 days, but I’ll think about it.

        • Haha Bill. So you don’t think older people make interesting mistakes? Are we just a bunch of boring old f***s? Still I like that you exclude Elizabeth Jolley. I also like The Astley’s Coda, and Jessica Anderson’s Tirra lirra by the river, both of which are also about older people.

        • I think the term is “young at heart”. I’m intrigued by the notion that SF can keep you young. In my mid-teens up I was a great SF reader, with only compulsory school texts outside the genre. Nowadays, I rarely read SF (or fantasy). Instead I read a hodgepodge, including rom com, non-fiction, family drama, YA. I have no interest in films, nor any in modern music (I enjoy classical music, but in actuality, rarely listener to it). Does that make me old? I guess my kids must think so, if they are discussing a film they have just seen, and I have no comment (even though I am not having my afternoon snooze). If I’m conversing with the “right” people I can be witty, engaging, and charming. Does that make me young? LOL. This is a muddly response. Shows I am really an old fuddy-duddy. I suspect, Sue, I have skirted around your question without answering it.

        • Ah yes, that is the commonly used term Neil.

          Interesting point re SF. Must say it didn’t jump out at me as automatically keeping you young but who am I to know I thought?

          I love movies, but don’t keep up a lot with modern popular music, though the kids know my taste and can engage me in some.

          I think by “young” or “young at heart” I mean maintaining a sense of fun, not reverting to old people’s attitudes such as seeing the young as lazy, hopeless, self-centred or whatever it is old people think, and, the big one, not immediately hating new things just because they are new but being open to thinking about new ideas, new technologies, new ways of doing things. That is, trying not to be scared of change. To me being young means being open to change while not changing fundamental values which should, anyhow, be timeless.

          Oh dear, I have gone on!

        • WG, I like your notion of being adaptable to change as providing a notion of youth. That probably makes me middle aged, I change some things quite quickly, and fight other changes tooth and nail!

        • Thanks Neil, I think being “middle” anything is a good place to be. Some might call it boring, but I think, overall, it is probably the most reasonable approach to most things in life!! Not everything new or young is right, anymore than everything old and tested is.

  4. Hmpf, I’m not ready to be elderly yet, and it’s been a bit discombobulating to find myself bracketed with The Vulnerable for the duration.
    (That of course is not the only discombobulating aspect of 2020, as it’s turning out to be).
    But I think a lot of people are turning to comfort reading so this might go down very well with some readers.

    • No, I’m certainly not elderly yet, either Lisa. But it has been… Hmm… Interesting to be among the vulnerable though thankfully we are not quite in the group to be told to absolutely stay home unless absolutely essential!

      • Dan Andrews is being very firm down here. And I think Sydney and Melbourne need to be. Some people in our less …um… cooperative suburbs are not doing the right thing and so it seems necessary.

        • Yes, our Andrew Barr is being strict too. A friend and I were saying today – over WhatsApp – that we’d be happy for the strictness to continue for another month (but it is comparatively easy for us, I know.)

  5. oh I do love your reviews – I looked up Weigenlied – gosh this is what I’d sing to my children and grandchildren – I’d make up words as I went along to suit the day we’d just had. ‘Go to sleep, Go to sleep, we’ve had such a daay -…’

  6. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #118 – Book Jotter

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