Carol Lefevre, Murmurations (#BookReview)

Book coverMurmurations is a beautiful, evocative word, and Carol Lefevre’s latest book, titled Murmurations, does beautiful, thoughtful justice to it. It is though an unusual book. Styled by its author as a novella, it reads on the surface like a collection of short stories, except that the stories are not only connected by the various characters who pop in and out, but by an overarching mystery concerning one of them, Erris Cleary, whose funeral occurs in the first of the eight stories.

Murumuration is, you may know, the collective noun for a flock of starlings, something I discussed in my 2016 post on Helen Macdonald’s essay “The human flock”. She says starlings flock for protection (out of fear), to signpost where they are to other starlings, and for warmth. Lefevre provides, as an epigraph for her book, an image of a murmuration and the following quote from a paper on starling flocks:

The change in the behavioural state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is.

These ideas are all reflected, in some way, in Lefevre’s book. But, the book also has another idea as Lefevre explains in her acknowledgements, and that is that each story was inspired by a different Edward Hopper painting. If you know his paintings – like “Automat” which inspires the first story – you will know that although they are set in real places, they have a certain paradoxical other-worldliness, which entwines bleakness with a sort of dreamy expectation. This tone also pervades Lefevre’s book.

Murmurations starts with “After the island”. Here, young doctor’s secretary Emily considers the funeral of her employer’s wife, the 53-year-old Erris Cleary. She remembers some mysterious messages that had occasionally broken through the doctor’s patient note recordings, messages that implied Erris was in danger. The book ends with “Paper Boats”, in which two neighbours, Amanda and Magda, discuss Erris’ death, with Amanda going on to write a short story about it. Erris Cleary, then, is the link that joins the stories.

The six stories that come between these opening and closing ones are all, like the two just mentioned, told third person from different characters’ perspectives. All are women except for the titular (and penultimate) story, “Murmurations”, which features a young man. His, Arthur’s, story is the only one in which we finally “meet” Erris as a living woman. Four of the remaining five stories feature women who moved in Erris’ circle – Claire, Fiona, Jeanie and Delia – with the fifth one featuring Lizbie who had a complicated and ultimately tragic relationship with two sons from this circle. She is also the daughter of the final story’s Amanda.

Each story focuses on the dark little accommodations or disturbances in its protagonist’s life. Marriage breakdown, looming dementia, suicide and other events threaten to – and usually do – destabilise the characters. There is a sense of quiet desperation in the stories, even in those that look to be alright on the surface. Claire (“Little Buddhas everywhere”) clings to the husband who has remarried. She relies on his sense of responsibility, not to mention her faith in her inherent lovability, to keep him looking after her as well as his new family, while Jeanie (“The lives we lost”) is thrown by the fact that the man she married admits years later that he hadn’t loved her then, though he did now. Delia (“This moment is your life”) is starting to lose her mind. She appreciates her second husband but seems to have married the same sort of controlling man she had the first time. And so on.

These are, mostly, the quiet little tragedies of life, the ones that never make the newspapers but that are all around us – if we only knew what questions to ask. As one character or another appears in the story of another, we see the possibilities for impacting each other – as in a murmuration. The overarching tragedy is that for all their apparent connections, no one seems to really see what is happening to the others or to have the time, or even the desire, perhaps, to genuinely care. This is beautifully illustrated in Jeanie’s story. She moves in with her cousin but they can’t connect:

Neither cousin understands what the other is saying. Though they speak the same language, words, sentences, turn opaque when they attempt to describe their lives.

The implication seems to be that this little murmuration of women is a surface one only, with little protection or warmth afforded to the individual members.

The exception is the mysterious Erris who, in the titular story, speaks to the young Arthur, working in her garden. She offers him the chance to fly:

… and a note, addressed to him, scribbled on a page torn from a blind notebook: Fly away, Arthur. Fly far, be free. Erris.

Around the edges of the paper, cloud shapes were filled with dozens of small, dark, pencilled birds.

The book is beautifully structured to suggest complex layers of links between the stories and characters, layers that would only multiply, I suspect on multiple readings.  The first story’s Emily, for example, is a young girl from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home. Then, after five stories about women linked through neighbourhood lives to Erris, we come to the aforementioned young Arthur. He also comes from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home and was a friend of Emily’s. Will these two, despite lacking the opportunities the others have presumably had, make a better fist of their lives?

The final story adds another dimension. In converting Erris’ death and the mystery surrounding it into a short story that she submits to The New Yorker, Amanda hopes to achieve her writing goal:

to hit one true note. A note that will make sense of something, perhaps of everything, a note that will crack the obliterating silence once and for all.

Can fiction, Lefevre seems to be asking, make the difference? Can we, through fiction, see the connections that we don’t always see in the real lives around us? If it’s fiction like this, written with such clarity and heart, I believe it can.

Challenge logoCarol Lefevre
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2020
ISBN: 9781925950083

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

31 thoughts on “Carol Lefevre, Murmurations (#BookReview)

    • Thanks Jan … it really is. I’m glad that comes across because I felt I hadn’t specifically made clear how enjoyable this was to read on all levels – the writing, the characters, the mental and emotional engagement.

  1. I can ‘like’ again ! Hallelujah !!
    This sounds absolutely marvellous, ST. Like a little unexpected present, beautifully wrapped with a feather in the ribbon ..

  2. Oh, this sounds absolutely delightful. I’m just finishing up a Roddy Doyle which is light and hilariously funny so I think I will be in the mood for this delightfully-named ‘Murmurations.’ I’ll search for it for my kindle right now. Lovely review.

    • That’s great to hear Sue – both that you have reserved it, and that someone else already has it. Spinifex books, like those of many small publishers, have a hard time getting out there.

      • Indeed Sue – reading one book from the library has often meant I then purchase others by the same writer if the library doesn’t have them in stock, so one library book can still mean sales for the writer/publisher! This does have excellent reviews when I Googled it – thank you for your review, otherwise I wouldn’t have heard about it!

        • I think blogs are good for getting reviews out there of books from small publishers because so often they are just ignored by the big outlets. No need to apologise for reading library books! But it’s great if you buy some too of course!!

  3. I would say I have never heard of a murmuration of starlings, but you say you have already told us. Sorry teach, I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know why starlings are too posh for flock. What comes next? A screecheration of cockies? Did you know a gunman is stationed at the WA/SA border to shoot any starlings who might attempt to form a murmuration in WA?

    • Apology accepted Bill … particularly since I wouldn’t like to be tested on things I’ve read in your blog!

      I think by flock, McDonald just meant collective noun …. the collective noun for crows is “murder” and for owls, it’s “parliament”. There are others but these are the two that stand out for me from my collective noun reading! A “screech” of cockies sounds good to me”.

      You’re pulling my leg about gunmen in the WA/SA border!

  4. This has just become available at our library – I’m dying to read it! And thanks to karenlee above – I am reading The Woman Who Walked into Doors at the moment and it’s brilliant.

    • How wonderful Sue. I’m so glad you want to read it.

      And, I love that you are reading a book recommended by a commenter here! The fact that this sort of cross-discussion and recommendation occurs makes blogging so special! Thanks Sue and karenlee!

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