There are some writers whose personalities shine through so strongly that I have taken to characterising them in just a word or two. Jane Austen, for example, I think of as wickedly witty, and Helen Garner as heartbreakingly honest. Carmel Bird is another of these. I describe her as seriously cheeky, by which I don’t mean she is really cheeky, but that there’s seriousness beneath her surface cheekiness. The cheekiness makes me chuckle, but ruefully, suspiciously so, because I know that waiting nearby is very often a skewer of some sort. Her latest novel, Field of poppies, is no exception. Even the title is paradoxical, alluding as it does to both Monet’s pretty painting, Field of poppies in Argenteuil 1873, and the poppy fields of Flanders.
Field of poppies, then, has all the hallmarks of Bird’s writing – a light tone, and all manner of allusions and digressions, underpinned by a clearly-focused intelligence. If you are lulled, early on, by narrator Marsali’s chatty, friendly tone, you’d be advised to check the epigrams and preface. The very first epigram tells you, in fact, exactly what this novel is all about:
We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators. (Henry Asquith, Secretary of State for War, July 24 1914)
Can’t say plainer than that. The epigrams, which include one by Bird’s signature fictional novelist Carrillo Mean, are followed by an incisive preface which offers a vision of the modern world and where it’s heading. Mixing visions of disaster (“Crops failed, dried out, withered, died”) with those annoyances we love to comment on (“People forgot how to punctuate or spell”), it further cements the book’s intention.
The novel is told first person by retired interior designer Marsali Swift who, with her husband, the semi-retired doctor William, made a tree-change to the perfectly named, prosperous ex-goldfields town of Muckleton. I mean, Muckleton! That suggests something too, doesn’t it? However, in the opening paragraph, Marsali also tells us that she and William had given up their country idyll after seven years and now live in a high-rise apartment in Melbourne, called, ironically, the Eureka. The tree-change hadn’t met their expectations, because of two events, a robbery at their loved home Listowel, and the mysterious disappearance of local eccentric musician, Alice Dooley. The arrival of a new gold-mine doesn’t help, either, with its disruptions and environmental threat.
Now, if you know Bird’s writing, you will know what to expect, but if you don’t, let me say that this is not a book you read for plot – though there is a plot about the missing Alice. Rather, it’s one you read for the joy of engaging with a lively but concerned mind and all the insights such a mind can offer. Isn’t that, really, what we read for? As one member of my reading group described it, reading this book is like having “a conversation with a quirky, artistic, intelligent friend”. That’s exactly how I feel when I read Bird. I feel my mind engaging with hers, pondering where it’s going and what it’s trying to tell me, and really enjoying the ride. She can be so sly, such as this about the missing Alice’s Silver Sisters group of witches:
The Silver Sisters still exist, to the best of my knowledge but Alice certainly does not. I understand the SS were always a harmless lot …
Whoa? The SS, harmless? Well, of course, the Silver Sisters were, but referring to them as SS can’t help but remind us of another SS, can it? This is what Bird does – and I love it. She makes me feel alive as a reader.
“Such a state of affairs is clearly a fantasy”
Various motifs run through the novel, including the aforementioned poppies, dreamhouses, and Alice in Wonderland. Each contributes in its own way to the idea that all is not as it seems, that we may, in fact, be living a fantasy. Marsali spends some time dissecting Monet’s painting, but as she draws us into its seemingly idyllic beauty, she inserts something sinister – not only the poppies and their dark reminder, but the possibility of a gun pointing out of a window in the lovely house nestled in the background. Bird’s meaning is clear: our dreamhouses, our country idylls, may not be what they seem at all. Dreams, she says early in the novel, are dangerous. For a start, they can lure us away from reality.
Later in the novel, Marsali’s description of returning to Muckleton for bookgroup makes her meaning clear:
When I go there for Mirrabooka nights I drive past the gate to Listowel and catch a glimpse of the house itself behind the trees. It’s really so very like the house in the distance in the Monet, the dangerous fool’s gold of the old lost dream house.
For Marsali, there are glimmers like these of the truth beneath the fantasy, but will she and William – who, we must see, stand for many of us – really change their ways?
Bird also refers in the novel to several literary texts, and in particular to Alice in Wonderland. Carroll’s Alice works beautifully as a foil for the missing Alice Dooley. Without spoiling the ending too much, both disappear into the deep, but Alice in Wonderland survives while Alice Dooley doesn’t. However, this foil isn’t a case of simple opposites, because, although Carroll’s Alice survives, the world she enters is chaotic.
“This is my memoir”
Another thing Bird does in this book is play with the idea of fiction. Marsali keeps reminding us that this is her memoir. It’s dangerous, she writes, for fiction writers to include dream sequences in their narratives, but as this is her memoir, she will include some! Similarly, “it’s hard to make coincidence work in fiction”, but again, because this is her memoir, she has them since “coincidences happen quite naturally in real life”. It’s “a nice coincidence”, Marsali writes, that Alice Dooley was called Alice! She pushes our acceptance of coincidence even further by not only involving kangaroos in the two road accidents that start and end the book’s drama, but also having the second accident’s driver spending time at a pub called The Kangaroo before he sets off on his fateful drive:
Look, it was called The Kangaroo. I can’t help that. It just was.
Well, look, that made me laugh. She is so blatantly cheeky.
I’d love to go on, because this book is rich in commentary, satire and jokes about contemporary life – and I’ve barely touched them.
However, I will close here, and will do so on this from the book:
Beauty always falls in love with the Beast, who always turns out to be the Prince, but that’s only the end of the telling, not the end of the lives of Beauty and her Beast-Prince. Life goes on until it doesn’t. Cinderella died in the end, and so did Snow White.
Fantasy, fairy tales, even fiction, in other words, are just that. They do not tell the whole story. Which world are Marsali and William living in, and which, indeed, are we?
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this novel.
Field of poppies
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2019
Review copy courtesy the author.