Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

When I thought about Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, I knew I’d have some hard choices to make as I have many eligible novels on my TBR shelves. However, the choice wasn’t too hard because there was one author who just doesn’t seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain.

I am a bit embarrassed about it, though, because I must have bought my copy around the time it was published, as the “Aust. recommended” price sticker on my Penguin says $7.95! Indeed, I referred to this book, albeit not by title, when I wrote about Canberra’s Seven Writers of which Barbalet was a member. This is another reason I’ve been keen to read this novel.

Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review), although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions.

And this is probably a good time to tell you what the novel is about. The back cover tells us that it’s “about Jessie … a young girl growing up and reaching for maturity in the Australia of the Great War and the Depression, as she moves from country town to country town and eventually to Adelaide”. It also says that her life is “in may ways, ordinary” but that Barbalet “follows Jessie’s odyssey with a perception and compassion that reveals a person who is quite extraordinary”. This is accurate, but it misses a few salient points.

“she feels everything”

For example, the novel starts when Jessie, 4 years old, and her brother Stephen, 8, are living with their parents in a small coastal town. In the first chapter, their mother walks out, and we never hear from her again. Jessie adores her brother, but with their father deemed incapable of raising them – in the eyes of the local churchgoing women – the two children are taken in by different relatives. And through one of those twists of fate, Jessie is taken into a loving family, the Whaites, while Stephen goes to the home of a stern maternal uncle Theodore, and his cowed unmarried daughter. There is no affection here, and, indeed, there’s disdain from Theodore, because Stephen’s father was an Irishman – “Of course, Catholics, Irish, what can you expect”. In his opinion, Stephen “had never been checked”.

We spend a little time with Stephen – just enough to realise that his youth was miserable, and for us to see the contrast with Jessie’s life – but the book is Jessie’s. The war comes, and with the death of Mr Whaite in that war, Mrs Whaite can no longer afford to keep her, so Jessie is moved on to an unmarried relation, Miss Symes. Miss Symes doesn’t have the motherly warmth of Mrs Whaite but Jessie realises early on that she “would not be unkind”. A major theme of the book concerns, as Jessie ponders in adulthood, “what made a life good or bad”. One factor, this novel shows, is a secure, loved childhood, something Jessie had well enough, but not Stephen.

Anyhow, the story progresses from here, with Jessie going off to work as a domestic when she’s around 14 years old … and we move into the Depression. Meanwhile, Stephen, with whom she manages to stay in contact, goes to war, and returns with an injured arm, but it’s clear that Stephen’s greatest injury is emotional. The siblings reconnect after Stephen returns to Adelaide with a wife, Pamela, and baby – and some time after, Jessie moves in with them. I’ll leave the story there.

Since I read this for Bill’s week, I want to comment on how this book might or might not fit into his ideas about Gen 4. I’ll start with style, and return to my point about Patrick White. A little research into Barbalet uncovered that she was a fan of DH Lawrence. Guess who was also a fan of DH Lawrence? Yes, Patrick White. I rest my case!

Seriously though, White writes in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass, about missing Australia, and says “I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape”. Well, you get the sense that Barbalet could too, as her descriptions of place – whether city, country, or coast – are so intensely evocative:

There was no one about but the smell of poverty remained.

The dew on the grass looks dirty, she thought, glancing through the pinched paling fence on the vacant block at the corner. Yellow light leant at corners, streaking the walls with new angles the colour of old flannel. Fingers of sun lifted new dirt in the glare.

There is also intensity in her descriptions of humanity, a Whitean (sorry!) sense of tough, hard lives that need resilience to survive. Jessie has resilience, seeking and enjoying, whenever she can, “manna in the dry waste of life”.

None of this is specifically Gen 4, but Blood in the rain does also embody its era. Barbalet, for example, plays with point of view, something that seems to start once Jessie is sentient. In other words, the novel is told third person, but at moments when Jessie’s feelings are likely to be strong we slip into second person. It begins when she is taken to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to her brother’s guardian. The mention of Stephen brings out feelings:

Your brother Stephen. If you skipped and walked even your feet would say the words. That dear face might suddenly slide in front of your eyes … You said the name over and over.

As does the awareness that, while Mrs Whaite had loved her, it wasn’t enough to keep her:

But, you, you, were someone who could be left.

It’s an intriguing technique, and a bit disconcerting at first, but it gives intensity to Jessie’s emotional self.

Besides style, though, is genre and subject matter. Blood in the rain is historical fiction, which was not particularly common in literary fiction, and it’s historical fiction about ordinary people, about ordinary women in fact. It’s a domestic story with little dramas, the sort of story that Gen 4 women made particularly their own.

Domestic, however, doesn’t mean trivial. This novel is about important ideas – about women’s resilience and stoicism in the face of poverty, about the raising of children, and in fact about love. Love, Jessie decides, is what makes the difference between a good life and a bad one. If that’s women’s fiction, it’s fine by me.

Margaret Barbalet
Blood in the rain
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1986
ISBN: 9780140089448

25 thoughts on “Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

  1. Thank you Sue. I’m perfectly happy to get two reviews of the one book. Interesting that Patrick White has come up again – Astley was also a Whitean. If we accept that White was late-Modernist then maybe the Whiteans (in Gen 4) were the last flowering of Modernism before the much more chaotic fashions of Postmodernism took hold.

  2. First, a confession: I don’t know what ‘Gen 4’ is.
    [pause for horrified gasps]
    Second, a familiar whinge: titles. “Blood in the Rain” conjures up images of a murder mystery set somewhere in the UK. Or maybe a death march during WWII in SE Asia ..
    Third, I can’t cope with writing in the 2nd person.
    There – I am totally exposed.

    • First M-R, just click on my Bill’s AWW Gen 4 link and all should be revealed. Over the last few years we have been working through, in January, Australian women writers according to an idea of “generations”. Bill drew originally from the work of HM Green, if I remember correctly, but slightly shifted Green’s idea of generations to one of his own, but with Gen 4 we are moving into times past Green. So the idea is to look at writers partly in terms of how they might or might not have been part of a particular literary period in terms of style, and subject matter, etc.

      Two: I should have referenced the title but I’d written enough. Not being a crime reader and knowing who Barbalet was means the idea of a murder mystery didn’t even enter my head. Also, the cover is too “arty” for it to suggest that genre! The title comes from a Joan Armatrading song, Save me, and is metaphorical re emotions rather than being a literal reference to blood! The words refer to “game of chance”, which underpins much of the book, such as the chance that affected Stephen’s and Jessie’s lives from the start. In a way though chance drives most of our lives doesn’t it. We can control somethings, but there’s a lot we can’t.

      Three: There’s very little second person, so that’s no excuse.

      Finally, thanks for exposing yourself … because that let me say a bit more!

  3. As I said elsewhere, great minds think….
    Since I wrote mine, I found out more about Barbalet… WP and her website list her works, one of which is Far from a Low Gutter Girl: The forgotten world of state wards, South Australia, 1887–1940, (1983). But there was no description of it in either site, and it was not until I landed on an Amazon page that I discovered that the book was the result of her research and was based on the letters of girls who ended up in domestic service. So that is the origin of Jessie’s authentic voice.
    I’ve bought it, of course (regrettably on Kindle, but through that new project to digitise ‘forgotten’ OzLit. (Have you done a post about that? My brain is foggy today)

  4. Pingback: Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet | The Australian Legend

  5. One of the many reasons I love Bill’s Gen reading weeks – the discovery of new to me authors! I had hoped to read some of the short stories in my Penguin anthology of Aust women writers but…

      • I had hoped to also do a post on Faith Bandler for Bill…
        Nice evenings are a bit in the short side in Sydney this summer, but certainly by the time we do the whole dinner thing, chat, clean up, maybe go for a walk if it’s not raining, watch the news, it’s bed time again!!

        • I understand … similar here, this year. I must say that even though I’m not working, my days are so busy, and then the evenings are like yours. Reading time is often very limited.

  6. It would be great if you could write a post on the Untapped Project. The 7 Writers anthology ‘Canberra Tales’ is included, and my novel ‘One for the Master’. The project is being run through the libraries, and we’re hoping to generate some publicity through the Geelong Regional Libraries this year.

    • Dorothy, I will be doing in tomorrow, so thanks for this, additional info. On Friday night I bought one book from the project, Canberra tales, which I never did buy at the time and have often looked out for. I will be buying more. And I’ll mention it in my first new AWW challenge (though it’s no longer a challenge) post.

      Any other info you have about how the project is being run, or what you hope Geelong will do to promote it, would be great.

  7. Pingback: AWW Gen 4 Roundup | The Australian Legend

  8. I’ll email you some general info about the program. With regards to Geelong, I’m looking to find out what other current or past writers living in or writing about Geelong are involved. We might then organise a joint event of some kind

    • Thanks Dorothy, that would be great.

      And good luck with the Geelong project. Anything that raises awareness of Australian writers from all time, not just now, is worth doing. We need Aussies to understand our literary past the way the English do, the Americans, the French, Russians, etc, don’t we?

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