Emma Ashmere, Dreams they forgot (#BookReview)

Emma Ashmere’s short story collection, Dreams they forgot, is different again from recent short story collections I’ve read. Certainly very different from the most recent, Adam Thompson’s Born into this (my review). One of the things that makes it different is its breadth in terms of time and place. Thompson’s collection, for example, is mostly contemporary, with occasional forays into the past and a little jump into the future. It is also very definitely centred in Tasmania. Ashmere’s collection on the other hand, while having some grounding in South Australia, has stories set elsewhere in Australia as well as overseas, including London, France, Bali and even Borneo. Furthermore, a significant number of the stories are historical fiction, with some set in colonial Australia, or during the Depression, for example, or post war, or in the 1970s. This is quite unusual in my experience of short story collections.

Unusual I say, but not surprising, because Emma Ashmere’s debut book is an historical fiction novel, The floating garden (my review). It is one of those books that has stuck with me because it tells such a strong story of social injustices that occurred during the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I could, then, start my discussion with the story in this collection which concerns the Bridge during its construction (“The sketchers”), but instead I’m going to the final story, because it gave me a laugh. This story, “Fallout”, concerns the (not funny) nuclear testing at Maralinga and concludes with the narrator taking her mother to the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra to show her some relevant treasures. What a great little promo for the importance of collecting institutions like the NFSA. But, that’s not what made me laugh. As some of you know, I spent most of my career at the NFSA, and this is how our narrator introduces it:

I tell her I live with my girlfriend in Canberra and work at the Film and Sound Archive with a bunch of other failed actors, part-time poets and overlooked opera singers.

I wish I could count myself as one of those, but I’m far too prosaic. However, there is probably an element of truth in what she writes. All I can say is that at least the NFSA offers gainful, and valuable, employment! This story, dealing as it does with the “fallout” from nuclear testing – great wordplay here – makes a fitting and strong end to Ashmere’s collection, which deals with all sorts of fallouts in people’s lives.

Take the first story, for example. Titled “The winter months”, it concerns a young woman who, like many young people, is uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, much to her mother’s frustration. She’s in England, and is doing a TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which, she believes, “is going to change everything. It will give me purpose. A goal. A life”. She meets and is attracted to a mysterious and seemingly confident young woman, Aveline, but, unbeknownst to our narrator, Aveline has her own challenges, and suddenly disappears.

“The winter months”, however, is more complex than I’ve described here. It introduces us to several types of characters and relationships which thread through the collection – uncertain young women, lepidopterists (would you believe), mothers-and-daughters, neglected wives, fledgling same-sex attractions, to name a few. The result is that, as the book progresses, some stories start to feel linked, even though in most cases the link isn’t actual. The effect though is to ground the collection because this feeling is supported by recurring concerns.

One of these is Ashmere’s concern for social justice, for overlooked people, for women in particular. “Nightfall” tells the story of a young Irishwoman who arrives in Adelaide during goldfields days:

Most of us here Behind the Wall sailed across the sea with our Billies, Jemmies or Toms. No sooner did they set their boots in the dust, they streaked off like a dog chasing a rabbit across a field, all glint and muscle and hunger and bragging about what they will become. I waited for my Billy to bring back rabbits and gold, but he didn’t come.

And so, girls like her were left behind:

It’s the same in every port for girls like us. You stand with the bones of your back pressed against the wall as sailors rope up their harpoons and aim them at your lower parts, or you go into a tavern for a drink.

She ends up working for an abortionist who is, of course, more concerned about not being caught than her health and safety … This story was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Other stories explore the impact on relationships of PTSD in times when there was no support or recognition (“Warhead” and “Seaworthiness”), and another, as already mentioned, looks at the aftermath of nuclear testing at Maralinga. Many of the more contemporary stories feature children and young adults who find themselves caught in worlds they don’t fully understand or don’t yet know how to handle. “The violin” is a carefully told story about a controlling young man and his bride-to-be.

There is a melancholic or, at least resigned, tone to many of the stories, but most are not completely depressing. While happy endings might be rare, little wins or rebellions or, in some cases, lovely acts of grace lighten the endings. As with most collections, there are stories that didn’t quite work for me, but those that did more than made up for the rest. I particularly loved “Seaworthiness” and “The violin”, but most read well.

This brings me to the title, which is not one of the stories in the collection. What does it mean? It’s certainly true that many of the characters had dreams, and it’s also true that in most cases these dreams do not come to fruition. Did they forget them? Not always, but, for better or worse, other dreams – or, at least events – replace them.

If you’d like a taste of Ashmere’s writing, you can read one of the stories, “Standing up lying down”, online at Overland. I’ll finish with a quote from it:

Apparently she’d heard Laurie’s conference paper on the omissions and silences in Australian history, how particular stories are concreted over, while others are constructed and celebrated in their place.

In Dreams they forgot, Ashmere retrieves some of these concreted over stories – those she feels able to, anyhow – and gives them a darned good airing.

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Emma Ashmere
Dreams they forgot
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781743057063

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Emma Ashmere, The floating garden (Review)

Emma Ashmere, The floating gardenI had a little chuckle when, fairly early in Emma Ashmere’s novel, The floating garden, we discover that our main character, Ellis Gilbey, writes a gardening column under the name Scribbly Gum! Good name, I thought. If it hadn’t been for my school song inspiration, this would have been the name for me!

There’s another synchronicity for me, though, and it relates to the setting of this story. Last week I did a presentation on old Australian ads for an organisation I’m involved in. One of those ads was The charmed cup*. It was made in 1929, runs for around 8 minutes (can you believe it?), and is for Bushells tea. It also, coincidentally, contains footage of the Sydney Harbour Bridge mid-construction. It’s this construction which sets the scene for Ashmere’s story … so now, let’s get to it.

The floating garden is set in Sydney in 1926 when construction on the Sydney Harbour Bridge had started and houses in Milson’s Point on the north of the harbour were being  demolished with little or no compensation to the residents of those homes. One of those residents is middle-aged Ellis Gilbey, who has run a boarding house for over twenty years. At the novel’s opening the last of her boarders has left and she, with other residents in the street, is hoping against hope that some compensation will be offered. Meanwhile, in a well-to-do part of Sydney, south of the harbour, is 30-something Rennie Howarth, a young English artist who had “taken the outstretched arm of an Australian man she hardly knew and had sailed from everything cold, sad and stale”. Unfortunately that Australian man, Lloyd, who had brought her to a life of luxury, was also abusive.

Part 1 of the novel alternates the story of these two women, with more of the chapters devoted to Ellis. Whether these two women are connected, or are going to be connected, we don’t discover until Part 2 of this three-part novel. While we are wondering about this, Ashmere is busy drawing some parallels between the women – both have experienced brutal men in their lives, Ellis her father and then an employee in a house where she’d lived as a young woman, and of course Rennie her husband; both had toyed with theosophy; and both find themselves house hunting. Another parallel occurs within Ellis’s life when, destitute, she is taken in by an older woman, and then, when that doesn’t work out, destitute again, she is taken in by another older, but this time kinder, woman. These parallels are not laboured, but provide a subtle foundation to the story being told, and help hold it together.

Ashmere’s main focus is Ellis. In her story, we shift between past and present, while Rennie’s story is focused on her present. Ellis, we discover, had run away from her farm home, when she was a teen, after her mother died, and had found herself, rather by accident, in the home of theosophist, Minerva Stranks, aka Strankenstein, around the turn of the century. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire for Ellis, as Minerva is a cruel taskmaster and a charlatan, to boot. Ellis is sexually attracted to Minerva’s other protégé, the pretty Kitty Tate. Her belief that Kitty cares for her helps her survive her time in the house until … well, I won’t give this away, but by the novel’s opening, Ellis had been carrying guilt and regret for twenty-seven years.

We are not given the same depth of background for Rennie’s life before the present, but we learn that she’d had a couple of exhibitions in London before fleeing to Australia with Lloyd, and that she’d been a lively, fun woman before her marriage to a man who physically abused and emotionally manipulated her. In Australia her art changes from “polite English watercolours” to “bolder, flatter, earthier colours” that are all-round too confronting for Lloyd. She represents, as Ashmere explained in an interview on ABC’s Books and Arts Daily, the new modernist art movement, a movement which rejected tradition for something bolder. That’s certainly Rennie.

So, despite the parallels in their lives, Rennie works largely as a foil for Ellis, not only because of their class difference, but because she’s lively and risk-taking against Ellis’ more cautious approach to life, which is understandable given her greater age and particular experiences. If I have a frustration with the novel, it would be that Rennie’s story is not as developed as Ellis’s and that perhaps her main role is to be this foil or plot-device to move Ellis on rather than a character in her own right. This is more observation, though, than complaint, because overall the writing is evocative without being overdone, and the characters are engaging,

What I particularly enjoyed about the novel is that Ashmere does for the underprivileged of 1920s Sydney what Ruth Park did for the 1950s in Harp in the south. They are very different books in terms of their narratives and themes, but both exude warmth and sympathy for their motley crew of marginalised characters, and both are valuable for their social history. In The floating garden this includes evoking the about-to-be dispossessed Milson’s Point community, the charlatan fringe of theosophy, the colour of Paddy’s Markets, the energy of the artistic/bohemian community, and the opening up of land in the rural outskirts of Sydney, in Lane Cove.

The novel’s overall theme has to do with memories, guilt and grief, with the idea that you really can’t move on if you haven’t resolved your past. Late in the novel, as Ellis starts to understand the truth of what had happened all those years ago, Ashmere writes:

She’d grown used to her memories for all these years and now her grief – her guilt – had grown around them in the same way a tree’s trunk grew around a rock until both the rock and the tree risked mutual destruction if prised apart.

But sometimes, there can only be progress if they are prised apart – and prised apart they eventually are, of course.

The floating garden is a very enjoyable book. It deals with real issues honestly but gently, and it brings to life a past world in a way that enhances our understanding of the present.

awwchallenge2015Emma Ashmere
The floating garden
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781742199368

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)

* Unfortunately, the ad is broken into three clips on this page. Clip 2 contains the Bridge footage.