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Bill curates: Elizabeth Jolley’s My father’s moon

July 17, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Elizabeth Jolley is one of the greats and I am sorry that I have only read her in fits and starts. I have had, unread, Brian Dibble’s biography of her for so long now that I wonder if I should just hurry up and read all these fictionalised accounts of her life first, uncontaminated by knowing what she ‘really’ did.

My original post titled: “Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon”

Book cover‘No one,’ she says, ‘can write anything till they’ve had experience. Later on perhaps. You will write later on.’ (Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon, 1989)

Although fiction demands imagination, it must be based on  some kind of genuine experience. (Elizabeth Jolley, “Only Connect”, essay first published in Toads, 1992)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the others being Cabin fever and The George’s wife. It won The Age Book of the Year Award in 1989.

I am an Elizabeth Jolley fan – and, along with Helen Garner, another Jolley fan, I enjoy the way she repeats and revisits stories and characters from one book or story to another. In this book is the chapter, “Night Runner”, which was published as a short story in Meanjin in December 1983, and again in a short story anthology, Room to move, published in 1985. The narrator of the story – and of the novel – typifies Elizabeth Jolley’s alienated protagonists and their often peculiarly self-centred and self-deluded ways of coping with their loneliness. Clearly Jolley decided that this was a character she wanted to develop further. And clearly she also drew a lot from her own experience to develop this character. Like Vera, Jolley was brought up as a Quaker, her parents sheltered refugees before and during the Second World War, and she trained as a nurse. Like Vera, Jolley probably experienced loneliness and alienation. However, this is fiction and so we need to be careful about how far we take these analogies between Vera and her creator. Much as I can empathise with Vera’s predicament, I must admit that I would hate to think she is Elizabeth Jolley.

It’s an uncomfortable novel. Vera, the first person narrator, is not a highly sympathetic character but neither is she totally disagreeable either. What she is, though, is lonely. The book has a somewhat challenging structure – and I had to concentrate to keep track of where I was. It starts with Vera, a single mother, leaving her parents’ home, with her young daughter, to live and work in a boarding school. Her hopes for a lovely life there among people “who feel and think as I do” are dashed. Such people “are not here as I thought they would be … I am by my own mistakes buried in this green-leafed corruption and I am alone”. In this first chapter are flashbacks to the past, and gradually the book moves into the past, providing us with insights into her character and how she has ended up where she is. Most of this past takes place in the hospital where she trains as a nurse during the war. The book finally returns to the beginning of the novel with Vera resolving to make a step towards alleviating her loneliness. However, we are by no means convinced she will.

The book comprises titled chapters, many if not all of which could be (and some have been) published separately as short stories. This gives it a somewhat disjointed feel – but seems appropriate for the story of a person like Vera. It is full of wonderfully drawn characters, with some very funny (if often dark) scenes and dialogue. Just think nurses and hospitals! There are many references to music – something that is common in Jolley’s works. Music is usually a comforting force for her characters, offering them respite from what is often a cruel world – and this is the case here, with Vera being drawn to characters who love and play music. There is a lot of irony, some of it subtle, some of it less so as in Magda’s comment to Vera who has fantasised about an affair with her husband: ‘You are so innocent and good … Don’t ever change’. Naive perhaps, innocent no!

So, what about the title? Funnily enough(!), it refers to Vera’s relationship with her father, a major stabilising influence in her life. He tells her throughout her childhood that wherever she is she can always look at the same moon he is looking at, ‘And because of this … you must know that I am not far away. You must never feel lonely’. A lovely concept and one to which Vera regularly returns in the book.

My father’s moon is not, I think, the easiest Jolley to read, and there are some things that might become clearer on a second reading. However, its concerns are very representative of her work – loneliness and alienation, homosexuality, parenting, memory, music and religion. While Vera is deeply lonely, while she often behaves selfishly, she can also be kind. She is also no quitter. For that I rather like her.

Elizabeth Jolley
My Father’s Moon
Melbourne: Viking, 1989
ISBN13: 9780670822676


I have written several posts on Jolley over the years, including reviews of a couple of novels, a sort of memoir, and a short story, but I had hoped to have read and posted on more of her work by now. Instead, a few of her novels – along with that Brian Dibble biography Bill has – still languish on my TBR pile.

Have you read any Jolley? If so, do you have any favourites?

36 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2020 11:53

    I’ve read The George’s Wife from this series, where Vera ranges backwards and forwards over her life. It was fascinating and I really should read the other two, though I don’t seem to have them in the grab bag of Australian classics I buy whenever I’m in a second hand shop.

    • July 17, 2020 15:51

      I have Cabin Fever, Bill, but not The George’s wife in my TBR. I need to find time to read it and find the other!

  2. July 17, 2020 13:33

    This has reminded me that I was going to host a week for another great Australian writer… we (I include you two plus other readers) did Jolley in 2018 and Christina Stead in 2016, so that established a pattern of ‘every other year’ so I should have done it this year too.
    But I don’t know… ILW hasn’t gathered as many readers this year (despite #BLM) and I’m not sure that enough people would/could contribute if I went ahead with it. (I’m assuming this is because not everyone is reading at the moment because of COVID_19).
    Thea Astley was born and died in August, so I had thought about the last week in August… but …
    What do you think?

    • July 17, 2020 13:53

      If you go ahead, I’m in. I’ve done A Kindness Cup and I have, short stories, Drylands, and It’s Raining in Mango in my shelves. I’m not so sure readership on the day is as important as getting a well set up ‘page’, which you certainly have for Indig.Lit and Stead (and may well have for Jolley but I haven’t looked).

    • July 17, 2020 15:53

      I have thought I should do Astley Lisa but I won’t! So I’d try to contribute as I have a couple on my TBR and have reviewed a few on my blog to contribute to your record if you did it… Bribe Bribe! Interesting about ILW. A weird year I think!

    • Sue permalink
      July 17, 2020 18:47

      Please do it Lisa – I’m illiterate as far as Indigenous Lit is concerned, apart from Carpentaria (mea culpa!) but I’d love something on an Australian writer like Astley!

  3. July 17, 2020 19:34

    This sounds like a decent character study.

    The structure seems interesting. Though books with unusual structures are not new, it seems that with more recent novels, these structural issues are more common. Back in 1989 I think that they were less frequent.

    • July 17, 2020 20:53

      Interesting observation Brian. I’d have to research this more, but my gut reaction is that you are probably right re structure.

  4. Sue permalink
    July 17, 2020 20:55

    The only novel of Jolley’s I’ve read and enjoyed is The Well, which I loved. Now I’m going to have to read some more of hers, maybe my taste has changed – I tried reading her books quite some time ago. I wonder if any of hers are published by Text Classics, I must look. I know I tried Foxybaby and didn’t like it.

    Just finished The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, (loved every it of it!) still have two more of hers to read and I bought The Dyehouse by Mena Calthorpe today – hooray for Text Classics and my local bookstore which stocks heaps of them!

    I will never get through all the books I want to read!

    • July 17, 2020 21:44

      The well is probably her most popular one, Sue, and the one most taught at school but I love so many of hers. A favourite is The newspaper of Claremont St. A good introduction to her style I think.

      • Sue permalink
        July 18, 2020 14:10

        Thanks Sue I haven’t even heard of that one – I’ll check the local library!

        • July 18, 2020 17:37

          Do, and the good thing for giving something a try is that it’s short!

  5. July 17, 2020 21:52

    Very interesting post. I have not read Elizabeth Jolley – yet! (I have a son in Canada who says the same thing about the moon). Ah, I feel sad now!

    • July 17, 2020 23:51

      Oh no, don’t feel sad Pink Roses! I like that your son says that. It’s a lovely thought.

  6. July 18, 2020 17:31

    Ok, you’ve twisted my arm: now it’s your turn to commit, sign up for Thea Astley week here:

  7. Sue permalink
    July 19, 2020 19:18

    Hi Sue, in answer to your question above re the library here being open – no cases of covid19 at the moment, but we have been inundated with visitors from Sydney during the school holidays so I am bracing for it…

    • July 19, 2020 19:43

      It’s a worry isn’t it? We have minimal cases in Canberra, and the last 5 were due to two people from Melbourne. However, clearly isolation nipped the spread of that in the bud.

      • Sue permalink
        July 20, 2020 17:45

        You have persuaded me Sue – I’ve just ordered a used copy of The Newspaper of Claremont Street on Ebay! I’ll let you know how I like it!

  8. Sue permalink
    July 20, 2020 19:33

    I can cope with a LITTLE (I needed italics there) bleakness in these times Sue – it has good reviews and the outline of the story sounds promising… am busy reading Reaching Tin River by Astley for Lisa’s blog and I’m chortling at pretty much every page – Astley’s humour is so delightfully scathing isn’t it!

  9. buriedinprint permalink
    July 31, 2020 03:09

    My favourites are Miss Peabody’s Inheritance and The Newspaper of Claremont Street. One that I didn’t enjoy as much as Mr. Scobie’s Riddle. And I’ve just finished a collection of her stories. She’s not very easy to find over here. The library has single copies of many of her novels (in a branch which is so well-used that their single copies of things often get marked “missing” when one requests one of them) and I’ve long meant to make more of a project of her. She’s just so i-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g.

    • July 31, 2020 08:17

      She sure is, Buried. I love those two too, and often pick up a copy of Newspaper to be ready give to anyone who hasn’t read her. My father’s moon is good, as is, as I recollect, An innocent gentleman.

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