Carmel Bird, Telltale: Reading writing remembering (#BookReview)

Finally, I have found something to thank COVID for – Carmel Bird’s Telltale. Best described as a bibliomemoir, Telltale may never have been written if Bird had not been locked down with her extensive library. What is a lively mind to do in such a situation? I can think of a few options, but what Bird decided was to revisit the books she’d read since childhood and, through them, look for patterns in her life and, because they are intertwined, in her writing practice. She would reflect on “the working of the imagination, the behaviour of the unconscious mind”.

Telltale, in other words, is more than a simple chronological run-through of her books, because the reading and writing life is not so easily compartmentalised. She writes that it

is composed of two different kinds of narrative.  One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface? Will the metaphors crumble into useless dust? One thread speaks of books read and sometimes of books written. And also of things that happened in my life. The other speaks of a journey of the heart, a pilgrimage through a patchy history of the world, becoming a poetic thread that runs through the whole narrative.

A complex book then, but one told in such a personal, confidential come-with-me voice, that it reads like a lovely long conversation with an intelligent friend. Like any intelligent conversations, though, it requires the participants to be on their toes, to be ready for twists and turns, for surprising connections and conclusions, to be both confronted and delighted. Bird heralds this in her opening sentence:

As a child at the end of World War Two, I was introduced to the concept of the Trickster in literature.

That trickster was Brer Rabbit, whom I also remember from my childhood, but I was of a more prosaic mind than Bird, who has proven to be a bit of a trickster herself. Yes, the dictionary uses words like “dishonest”, “cunning”, and “deceptive” to describe “trickster”, but the trickster in literature, as Wikipedia explains, “is a character in a story … who exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and defy conventional behavior”. This is how I see Carmel Bird as a writer. The surface can look quite simple, but underneath there is usually something else going on. You only have to check out the epigraphs to her books, which frequently include bon-mots “written” by her own character, Carillo Mean. It’s apposite, then, that she starts her book with a “trickster”. It tells us to be ready for – well, anything.

So, Telltale. It looks like a bibliomemoir – a book about her reading and writing life – but as she explains in the excerpt above, it also encompasses “a patchy history of the world” as it has affected or appeared to her. To unite it all, she crafts her tale around a narrative heart, a loved book, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Louis Rey. She wants to write about it but can’t find it. This injects a mystery: will she find it? It also introduces a potential conflict: will she break the rule she set for herself to not buy books and only use those on her (clearly extensive) shelves. As the memoir progresses, we become party to her increasing concern about where it is and what to do.

Why of all the books, you might be asking, The bridge of San Luis Rey? But, that might be for me to know and you to find out.

“to move the heart and illuminate the mind”

Late in Telltale, Bird mentions reading Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The fly” when she was fifteen. She writes:

I suddenly saw how the surface narrative and the narratives and meanings below the surface could dance together with an electrifying elegance to move the heart and illuminate the mind. This was my first conscious lesson in style and structure.

See! It’s a lesson Bird clearly took to heart, and which is on display in all the works of hers I’ve reviewed. (As for “move and heart and illuminate the mind” – who could want more from reading?) Earlier in the book, she refers to another aspect of her style: “the pleasure I take in moving (drifting, spinning, flicking) from one topic to another”. This pleasure, she suggests, could have come from her father’s six-volume Harmonsworth’s household encyclopedia. Again, we see this approach in Telltale. It’s one of the things I love about Bird’s writing. It can be challenging, of course, but it is exciting to be so challenged – and to thus be respected as a reader.

Anyhow, the point is that while on the surface Bird seems to move or flick from topic to topic, her books are invariably held together by framing ideas and motifs. Here, it’s not only the search for The bridge of San Luis Rey, but two other narratives, which she draws together towards the end of the book. One concerns a childhood family picnic to Cataract Gorge in 1945, and the other, the gathering of American planes for the rarely-remembered firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. Woven through these narratives is another, Bird’s growing awareness of the devastating dispossession of Australia’s First Nations people, starting from her acceptance, as a Tasmanian-born child, of their “extinction” in her state.

These are the main narratives that make up the aforementioned “patchy history”, and I fear this may be sounding disjointed. In fact, however, the “threads” hold, because the relationship between this “patchy history” and the books she has read and written is strong. Not only are there the obvious and expected connections between the “history” and her reading and writing, but there are also two recurring motifs that are real, historical, and literary – bridges, which can symbolise “fragile communication and union”, and peacocks which can signify “eternal life”.

Telltale is a delicious and revelatory read, and I’m not doing it justice. I’ve not, for example, touched on the quirky, often poetic, tapered chapter ends, or the neat segues between chapters. Nor have I said much about the writing which can turn from seriously descriptive or philosophical to whimsical or poetical in a paragraph. And nor have I shared the reflections about reading and writing, about truth and meaning, about words and language, that I specifically noted down to share, because, frankly, there are too many. There may be another post in this.

I took some time to read this book, and I’m not sorry. To read Bird, if you haven’t realised already, is to agree to join her on a sometimes merry, sometimes macabre dance. If we do, what we find is a compassionate heart that, despite it all, believes in love and calls us to hope, as that peacock that has accompanied us throughout darts and dances across the sky.

Lisa also enjoyed this book.

Carmel Bird
Telltale: Reading writing remembering
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760927

(Review copy courtesy the author)

34 thoughts on “Carmel Bird, Telltale: Reading writing remembering (#BookReview)

    • I can understand that Lisa … a funny thing happened to me this week. I was lunching, as I do most Wednesdays, with a good friend and work colleague. She pulled a plastic covered book out of her bag. It had my name and 1968 written in it. Her husband was reading it, but they’d decided that it was another person with my name. No, I said, that’s mine. My writing, my covering. It was Nevil Shute’s An old captivity and coincidentally I have been thinking about that particular book recently. I can’t remember when I gave it away but I really think it would have been a couple of decades ago as it’s a long long time since I had my Nevil Shutes. It felt like seeing an old friend. Inside, I had ticked off all the titles of his I’d read and had written in others (all in pencil) not on the publisher’s list that I’d read or wanted to read. All this is to say how impressed I am about all the books Carmel Bird still has from her youth. I am about to pass on my uni literature texts – poets, Shakespeare, etc. It’s breaking my heart but circumstances are such that I just have to downsize. Telltale hasn’t helped me!!

  1. This is a wonderful review, Sue. I bought the book as soon as I finished reading.

    We are currently in France and looking to have our stuff, which has been in storage in Switzerland for five years, delivered here. I can’t wait to see my books again. I did cull before leaving but there’s still many including a few from my childhood.

    • In France now Glenda. You do get around. What part of France? I’m impressed that with all those moves you still have some childhood books. Anyhow, I’m thrilled that you bought the book as a result of my review. I have moved a lot too, through childhood and after, and after. I still have a few childhood books but not many. AA Milne’s Now we are six, Joanna Spyri’s Heidi, and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, being among them. Not many others I think.

      • We’re in Ruffec in the Charente after 3 months in Lyon. I need to see how winter is before we decide to renew our visas next June.
        I think I have the same A A Milne, Wind in the willows and a few others. I did have a copy of Heidi but not sure I still do.

  2. What a fabulous rave about an obviously fabulous book !!
    And I’ve exchanged email with the delightful Carmel Bird, so there !! [grin]

    • Oh, did you MR! I’m glad. BTW, I’d like to think this was more than a rave, though I did enjoy it immensely. One thing I didn’t mention but which speaks to Carmel Bird’s (and publisher Transit Lounge’s) thorough professionalism is that the book has an excellent index. So important, but so often not done.

        • I think there are professional indexers M-R, but it costs money (besides of course the extra pages + printing needed) which is why it’s so often not done. With electronically produced text, it should be easier to index a work, but it’s still a skill methinks.

  3. The book sounds fascinating and I’m curious how the March 1945 firebombings of Tokyo fit into the author’s reading memories.

    • Thanks Carolyn. I would have to read it again to answer this with specific references but there’s a sense of the “twining” of her life and experiences, of her gradual loss of innocence about the world. Reading played into that personal development but also conversely the experiences play back into the reading, so you get this development of a whole person through how the two interplay over time – how you read, then experience with different eyes, as a result, then read with different eyes… and so on. The picnic and the bombing are both real and metaphorical of that innocence-experience growth and interplay. I hope this makes sense – and is what Carmel Bird intended!

  4. I know there are several books out there about books, but it’s always interesting to see how people frame their work. Sometimes it’s significant books to the author, and how each book impacted that person. I like the idea here that books may provide clues as to what happened in the author’s life. I’ve often thought about this myself, though for me it wasn’t a challenge. I would fixate on series, so for many years it was Goosebumps, and then Sweet Valley High, and sometimes The Baby-sitters Club. But I can think of a few standouts that changed things for me, including The Family Nobody Wanted and a novel about a teen who cared for her younger siblings after their mother abandon them in a car.

    • Thanks Melanie. I would say in this one it’s not so much about what happened in her life as how it affected her development as a person and as a writer, and particularly the intertwining of the two… the reading affects you, and then you affects your reading, and so on.

      My son LOVED Goosebumps, while my daughter was more into the Babysitters club. I think the earliest book that affected me was AA Mike’s Now we are six. His insight into children’s personalities and how they react to the adults in their lives was reassuring in a way. But which novels? I think perhaps Cry the beloved country (Paton), which I read as a mid-teen, really confirmed, encouraged, reinforced my Idea of humanity. The next was probably one I read in my late teens, The plague (Camus).

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