Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day is the third Viva La Novella winner that I’ve read and posted about on my blog, the other two being Julie Proudfoot’s The neighbour (my review) and Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). All are memorable reads, and do this award proud – and no, I am not being paid to say this.

Announcing Meany’s win, Books and Publishing quoted the prize organisers who said that “at the intersections of art, politics, identity and representation, this darkly funny novella shows us a world that is weird, disturbing and all too familiar”. Previous Viva La Novella winner, Jane Rawson, calls it “a fresh, funny and delightfully weird take on authenticity and the people who manufacture it”.

Both use the word “weird”, but if you don’t normally do “weird” please don’t let that put you off because this novella is just weird enough to jolt us into thinking about its ideas, but it’s not that far-fetched – unfortunately.

Every day is Gertie Day concerns a new small house museum in Sydney commemorating a reclusive woman called Gertrude Thrift who had died and not been found until well decomposed. She had been the subject of a series of paintings by an artist called Hettie P. Clarke. This series, formally called the Girl with Greyhound series, is popularly known as the Elf Ears paintings because Gertie is depicted in them with pointy elf-like ears. This isn’t particularly weird, but what is weird is that there are people who have adopted Gertie as their inspiration, their role-model and have had their ears modified to emulate those in the paintings. The problem is that there is no evidence in the museum that Gertie herself had such ears.

The story is told in the first person voice of Nina, a guide (or Public Education and Engagement Officer) at the Museum. That this book was going to interrogate contemporary cultural and political trends and tensions is clear early on. As a retired librarian-archivist invested in the heritage sector, I was hooked when Nina notes that

getting people through the door of any museum anywhere was enough of a challenge, and the professional consensus, though no one would publicly admit it, was that it didn’t matter how you achieved it.

Nina continues that if anyone voiced “any sort of distaste, or ethical concerns, or accusing State Heritage of cashing in on a tragedy” they were to say that the museum endeavoured “to be as respectful as possible”. Thus the stage is set for conflict between the Gerties (mainly the Truthers but also the Regular Gerties), the museum staff, and State Heritage over the authenticity – the truth – of their displays. What follows is a story about a tussle for the “truth” in which the actual “truth” seems less important than what people want to believe and why, and what State Heritage and the Government think is best to do and say about it.

While Nina’s voice is the prime one, we are also given excerpts from the artist Hettie’s diaries, which may, or may not, be the “truth”, and, as the conflict escalates, we see some transcripts of social media commentary from various Gerties and their opponents. It is all so real, and delicious to read in the wake of contemporary controversies about “truth” and our tendency, desire even, to make it suit our own purposes and world-views. Nina is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for in this environment, but she has her own needs and perspectives. Mainly, she wants a quiet life and a job to support her family.

There is an element of dystopia in all this. A parallel story concerns Nina’s husband Benj, his recyc-u-pay job and the plight of the unemployed Trolley People (Trollos). These Trollos earn a living sorting through other people’s rubbish to feed into recycling machines that may be poisoning the air. Has Benj been affected? Who is caring about the Trollos, while the Gertie business garners all the attention?

And then there’s the State Museum, where Nina had previously worked. It had closed because of the “controversial Hall of Extinction”. The truth, it appears, was unpalatable. People had stopped coming because no one wanted to be reminded of all the lost species that could now only be seen “stuffed and mounted or on large video screens”:

Dwelling on the past was no way to move forward, it only made people unnecessarily depressed and angry. At least they were the government’s main arguments for defunding the museum.

There are many angles from which to explore this book – cult, identity, and politics; who controls the narrative and what can get lost in the melee; not to mention, art, and its creation and meaning. How ever you look at it, in Every day is Gertie Day, Meany has astutely tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that extends where we are now just a little bit into “weird”, but not beyond our ability to accept its – hm – truth or, worse, its inevitability. Have we got to the point where people are simply “allowed to believe what they want” or, where authority is so distrusted that all we have is belief (with or without evidence)? The ending is perfect.

Read for Novellas in November, and AusReading Month.

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Helen Meany
Every day is Gertie Day
Lidcombe: Brio Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781922267627

40 thoughts on “Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

  1. Plenty of current day concerns reflected in there. The ‘truth’ is something everyone claims to want (media especially) but as you’ve pointed out, for each it is the perspective or interpretation that suits themselves. So perhaps it ends up being another of those hypocrises of society.

  2. The elf ears somehow reminds me of The Life of Brian and the sandal scene – people so desperate to follow a messiah they cannot decide if it is the lost sandal or the gourd that is significant!

    Thank you for highlighting the Viva la Novella prize again.

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  4. This short novel sounds absolutely wonderful – just thinking of its sending up so many things that have today become .. well, sacred cows, really, is delightful !
    Lovely review, ST !

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  6. I know I just recently pointed out the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? but this post brings it to mind again! There are so many letters that Lee Israel wrote that were convincing that it is believed there are still many, many forgeries she did held in collections and believed true documents. That opened my eyes a bit. Honestly, the value is in the story behind the creator: his/her/their name, time period, tragedies. Even if a forgery is just as good or better than the original, it still doesn’t have value because the wrong person created it.

    • Haha, the synchronicities of reading and blogging Melanie. I’m glad you mentioned it here again because it’s clearly relevant again.

      “Even if a forgery is just as good or better than the original, it still doesn’t have value because the wrong person created it.” Yes. If it’s an art work you copy, then even if you perhaps executed it better, it wasn’t your idea or “creation”, which is where much of the value surely is. If you actually create something yourself but pass it off as being by someone else, there’s a murkiness about “value” though not about morality/ethics, because it suggests that the value is more in the “name” than in the work itself.

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  9. Do you think people occasionally/often mistake your enthusiasm for paid endorsement?!

    This sounds really smart and I like what you’ve said about the ending (spoiler-free). Also intrigued by the recyc-u-pay job!

    • I hope not! I’m careful about what I choose to read as my reading opportunities are small it seems, so I try to pick/accept books that I will get things out of. Plus I am more likely to analyse than criticise, if that makes sense.

      This is smart … and I would like to have spent more time on the recyc-u-pay narrative stream.

  10. Pingback: Every Day is Gertie Day, by Helen Meany (2021 co-winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize) | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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