Delicious descriptions: Jessica Anderson and urban life

I didn’t quote much from Jessica Anderson’s One of the wattle birds in my recent review, which is unusual for me – so I decided a Delicious Descriptions post was in order. I had trouble however choosing which excerpt to quote. My first thought was to share an example of the book’s wonderful – and often very funny – dialogue, but each example I looked at seemed to need too much explanation to make it work out of context. So, I’ve gone with some internal reflection instead, partly because it also demonstrates something Anderson was known for, her urban/suburban setting.

This excerpt occurs early in the book when Cec has turned up unannounced at her Uncle and Aunt’s place in Turramurra* to ask her uncle for the umpteenth time about her mother’s decisions. (See my review linked above if you need to be refreshed on this central issue in the book).

I’ve chosen it for a few reasons. It gives insight into Cec’s confused mental and emotional state, and her values. It also shows the way Anderson uses rhythm to convey that state, and it gives us a glimpse of her satirical humour.

The RIVERLAND orange isn’t bad for this time of year, and as I eat it I look through the big glass doors into the living room. The fortress look hasn’t extended to this part of the house, and I can see on the other side the twins huddled over the phone talking to Amy. It’s a big room with high ceilings and pale thick sculpted-looking curtains and polished floorboards with rugs and altogether that well-known look of peaceful opulence that Katie and I used to say was the dread and horror of our lives. But now, because at Annandale our yellow cotton blinds are sun-streaked with greyish-white, and there is dust on the tops of our paper moons, and the fronts of our Ikea drawers keep popping out like little awnings and have to be kicked back into alignment, and because I ought to be studying like mad so that one day I’ll have a wonderful steady job, and earn enough money to have a room equivalent to that (and then what?) and because I feel sorry for Wil being hampered with someone like me, I feel generally very depressed and hopeless, and wonder if I really want to ask Uncle Nick any questions, or whether I just want him to hug me and massage my scrawny little hands in his.

Phew, that last sentence is long! I like the way this excerpt conveys self-knowledge alongside her uncertainty. I like the youthful rejection of an older generation’s values alongside a recognition of that being the likely progression of things. Cec comes across as a young woman in pain but with a good head on her shoulders. We feel that she will get through this … but how, and with what further insights, is the interesting question.

* I’ve added the location for those who know Sydney. Turramurra is a beautiful, leafy suburb in the affluent upper North Shore.

Jessica Anderson, One of the wattle birds (Review)

I have finally read Jessica Anderson’s final novel, One of the wattle birds, which has been sitting in my beside cabinet since my parents gave it to me in 1998! Never let it be said that I don’t read books given to me – though, on reflection, I’d prefer you didn’t hold me to that! I have many many books in my TBR pile and most of them are not in the bedside cabinet. For a start, they wouldn’t fit. Anderson, though, has stayed there because she really was high priority, as I do like her. What finally prompted me to read this novel was Lisa Hill (ANZLitLovers) who recently reviewed Anderson’s penultimate novel, Taking shelter. She suggested that we swap books, when I’d read mine. When I suggested that it might take me some time, she sneakily said, “I’ll send mine up to you and then you will feel guilty if you don’t do it.” That was mean, don’t you think?

And so, being the responsible person that I am, I read One of the wattle birds and am glad of that little nudge (but don’t tell Lisa!). It is a deceptively simple book. When I started reading it, I wondered whether I was really interested in the first-person story of a 19-year-old female university student and her boyfriend. I thought I knew what it would be about, but how wrong I was. Set in Sydney, it describes three days in the life of the narrator, Cecily Ambruss, the only child of a single-parent family. Cecily’s mother, we discover, had died of breast cancer the previous year while Cecily was overseas with her boyfriend, Wil, and two other couples. Not surprisingly, Cecily is grieving deeply. Her grief is not helped by her inability to understand two things: why did her mother let her go overseas without telling her about the terminal illness and, what’s more, refuse to let her be called back, even for the funeral; and why did her (unmarried) mother stipulate that Cec must marry before she can inherit. Interesting, n’est-ce pas?

Red Wattlebird (Photo: JJ Harrison, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Red Wattlebird (Photo: JJ Harrison, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

The three days over which the story takes place happen to be part of stu-vac, but while Wil – good, decent, conscientious law-student Wil – is taking his study seriously, arts student Cec is distracted. She cannot get her questions out of her mind. She has given up bothering Wil about them as he’s tired of her talking about her mother. And yet, grief is like that, particularly grief after unexpected deaths. You talk and mull, and mull and talk, over and over and over.

This brings me to the birds. There is, of course, the wattle bird. Cec calls it the DOIK*, for its sound, or “no-comment bird”, because it seems to be drowned out by other birds, reflecting, presumably, Cec’s feeling of inconsequence.  In another reference to birds, Cec says :

I feel like one of those raggedy birds you see trying to feed their remorseless young. And among the gaping beaks, that one gapes widest. And among the chorus of cheeps, that one cheeps loudest.

The beaks and cheeps are the insistent questions that the bird tries to quieten with answers she’s gathered from others, such as her mother’s friends, her uncle and aunt, and even her counsellor. But they don’t satisfy, so she keeps searching – and eventually comes to her father, a man who had professed to have no interest in her and whom, therefore, she had long ago decided she didn’t want to meet.

Alongside this search for answers, Cec does do the occasional study – and what she’s studying is Malory’s story of King Arthur which is, appropriately enough, a quest story. But, it raises other issues for Cec too, such as how much magic versus Arthur’s “own hands” played in his achievements. I suspect this has something to do with Cec learning that not everything has a clear, logical answer.

While all this is interesting, much of the delight in reading the novel comes from the interactions between characters. They are, generally, exquisite. The often prickly Cec has wonderful exchanges, for example, with her Aunt-by-marriage Gail, her Gran, and her father who tries his best to help her see where her mother may have been coming from. These characters aren’t paragons, but neither are they malign. They are, simply, human. My only quibble with Anderson’s characterisation is that Cec and her friends – all around 19 years old I assume – seem at times a little improbable. How many 19-year-olds – particularly university students – talk about mortgages and the like?

Anyhow, by now you must be wondering about Cec’s mother. Without spoiling anything, there’s nothing to suggest they had a difficult relationship – and the answers to Cec’s questions are probably pretty mundane. The point of the novel is, in other words, not so much Cec’s relationship with her mother but her coming to terms with her grief, her identity, and her relationship with Wil.

This novel is not easily categorised. Part quest, part comedy-of-manners, part family drama, it has some laugh out-loud moments as well as reflective ones. It explores many of the themes common to Anderson’s work. One is money and power. Cec’s family has money – “fruit and veg have been good for us” – and money is used both subtly and not so, as a means of control. Another is deceit and concealment. As the novel progresses, Cec starts to tell Will less and less. At first she justifies it because it’s all too complicated to explain – and he does tend to brush her emotional concerns off –  but, by the third day, there are many things she doesn’t tell him. “I foresee no end to the things I won’t tell Wil”, she says. And another, as the surprising last paragraph makes clear, has to do with the act of creation or, perhaps more correctly, with living life creatively.

One of the wattle birds is a tight, cleverly conceived “concoction” that makes, I’d say, a fitting conclusion to Anderson’s literary life. Has anyone else read it?

Jessica Anderson
One of the wattle birds
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1994
Cover design: Joanna Hunt
ISBN: 9780140240320

*A not very tuneful bird. We have a resident Red Wattlebird in the tree outside our bedroom. It squawks us awake every morning.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Jessica Anderson

Every now and then I feature a specific writer in my Monday Musings – and they’ve usually been women because they tend to be overlooked. Take Jessica Anderson (1916-2010), for example. Most keen AusLit readers will know her because her novel Tirra lirra by the river made quite a splash when it was published in 1978, but my sense is that her “fame” doesn’t go much past this.

She is, however, one of our great writers:

  • She won the Miles Franklin Award award, twice: Tirra lirra by the river in 1978, and The impersonators in 1980.
  • The impersonators also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 1981.
  • Her book of short stories, Stories from the warm zone and Sydney stories, won The Age Book of the Year in 1987.
  • Tirra lirra by the river was included in Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, by Jane Gleeson-White.
  • Tirra lirra by the river was also included in the admittedly eclectic, but international, The modern library: The 200 best novels in English since 1950, by Carmen Callil and Colm Tóibín
  • She is taught in many university (and, I believe, high school) literature courses.
  • She’s a good example of a late bloomer, with her first novel, An ordinary lunacy, being published when she was 47.

An ordinary lunacy was, in fact, published in England, having been rejected by Australian publisher, Angus and Robertson. Gleeson-White quotes Anderson saying that she didn’t think Australian publishers in the 1960s would like her novel about “how a utilitarian society treats those with unserviceable gifts”. Ouch!

Of course, like most late bloomers, Anderson had been writing long before she was first published. It was probably the increased focus on women stemming from the second wave of feminism in the 1970s which resulted in authors like her getting their chance. There’s that fashion thing again, eh? But this doesn’t mean that she didn’t deserve it. Beatrice Davis, one of the Miles Franklin judges, said that Tirra lirra by the river “has an unpretentious elegance, an individual quality so different from the realistic documentary that still dominates the field in Australian novels”. Here is the opening sentence:

I arrive at the house wearing a suit – greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these sub-tropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them behind in the car, but I don’t know that yet.

I love this opening, which introduces us to the narrator, Nora Porteous, late in her life, as she returns “home” after many decades away. It’s so precise, and yet with tantalising hints of uncertainty. Oh dear, as I pick it up, I feel I want to read it all over again and follow Nora as she reviews her life, and the decisions she made in search of “her place”, only to end up back where she started, thinking, processing and wondering.

Most of Anderson’s work was contemporary, but she did write one historical novel, The commandant (1975), which she calls her favourite. I reviewed it as part of Sydney University Press’s Australian Classics Library. Like Nora in Tirra lirra, the main character here, Frances, is not in her “place”. She’s with family, but her views, her aspirations, are different to those around her. She must navigate this family, this society, to develop her self.

According to Gleeson-White, Anderson greatly admired the novelist, Henry Green (recently featured by Stu at Winston’s Dad) for his “poetic brevity”. I think this brevity is partly what draws me to Anderson. Stories of women feeling at odds with their lot are not, after all, unusual, but it takes some skill to cover several decades in less than 150 pages, as Anderson does in Tirra lirra. Anderson was also, says Gleeson-White, inspired by Christina Stead for showing her “there was an Australian background I could use: the urban background of For love alone“. I’d love to understand this a little more … what was it about Stead’s urban background that differed from that of other Australian writers?

Near the end of Tirra Lirra, Nora says:

I find myself thinking that we were all great story-tellers at number six. Yes, all of us, meeting in passages or assembling in each other’s quarters or in the square, were busily collating, and presenting to ourselves and the other three, the truthful fictions of our lives.

“Truthful fictions”. An intriguing concept that we can read several ways … but that is for another day. In the meantime, I commend Jessica Anderson to those of you who haven’t read her. Meanwhile, I must read her One of the wattle birds which has been languishing on my TBR for far too long.

Note: This post is not a review for the Australian Women Writers 2012 challenge, but I plan this year to write a number of posts supporting the challenge’s promotion of Australian women writers … which is not a hard ask given my reading priorities!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Late bloomers

Bloomers (Flowers in vases and pots)

Bloomin' bloomers

I guess every country has them, the writers who aren’t recognised until their middle age. Australia certainly does, and many of them seem to be women. I’m not sure whether this apparent gender imbalance is a fact or simply reflects my biased interest in the lives of women writers. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a fact, though, given that women often need to balance motherhood and wifehood with the rest of their lives. Anyhow, I thought I’d share five of my favourite late Australian bloomers. They are mostly my usual suspects and, like many people who seem to appear overnight, they  worked for a long time at their craft before they gained their much deserved recognition. I’m listing them in the order of their age when their first major writing was published.

Jessica Anderson (47, An ordinary lunacy in 1963)

Jessica Anderson wrote stories and plays, and adapted other works for radio before hitting big time with her novel An ordinary lunacy. I’ve only read two of hers – Tirra lirra by the river and her one piece of historical fiction, The commandant, which I reviewed last year. I have her last novel, One of the wattle birds, in my burgeoning TBR pile. Like many women writers, I suppose, her subject matter tends to be families. Even The commandant, which is ostensibly about the male head of the Norfolk Island penal colony, is really about the family relationships, and the reaction of the women (his wife and sister-in-law) to their circumstances in particular. According to Wikipedia, Tirra Lirra by the river, was reviewed well in the USA.

Marion Halligan (47, Self possession in 1987)

Marion Halligan was a member of the now legendary Canberra Seven or Seven Writers, a group of Canberra-based women writers who met regularly to read and discuss each other’s work. The group comprised: Dorothy Johnston, Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Dorothy Horsfield and Marion Halligan . In 1988, Australia’s Bicentennial Year, they published an anthology titled Canberra Tales. It made quite a splash on the literary scene at the time. Halligan had just published her first novel then, but the first of hers that I read was Lovers’ knots which won several awards. I have gone on to read several of her novels, including the gorgeous Valley of Grace which I reviewed last year. Halligan wrote one of my favourite quotes about reading: “Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul”. Really, how beautiful is that!

Elizabeth Jolley (53, Five acre virgin and other stories in 1976)

Jolley was the subject of my second favourite writers post. She began writing in her twenties, and did have individual short stories published in the 1960s, but she also suffered rejection after rejection after rejection. However, she kept on and became a much lauded novelist, and a successful creative writing teacher. After all, Tim Winton was one of her students! She is recorded as saying that her eventual success was partly due to “the 1980s awareness of ‘women’s writing'”, an awareness that I fear we have lost again! Anyhow, she made up for lost time, and published 15 novels in about 20 years, as well as short story collections. I’ve read half of the novels and love the way she gets into the dark parts of our souls, into those areas where we feel alone or alienated, while being funny (albeit in a black way) at the same time.

Amy Witting (59, The visit in 1977)

Amy Witting is probably the least well-known of the five I’ve listed here. Her real name was Joan Austral Fraser. According to Wikipedia she met Thea Astley when they both taught at the same school and Astley encouraged her to submit a story for publication. It was published in The New Yorker in 1965, but it would be 12 more years before her first novel was published. I’ve read two of her novels, I for Isobel and A change in the lighting, and would happily read more. Again she deals with families, and often with the challenges middle-aged and older women face in navigating a society which is not necessarily friendly to them. She also published several collections of short stories.

Olga Masters (63, Home girls short stories in 1982)

Olga Masters was a journalist for a long time before she finally had a novel published. She was also mother to seven children, many of whom are well-known in their various fields (but you can read about all that at Wikipedia). She died in 1986, just four years after her book was published, and so her output was small, just a few novels and a couple of short story collections. Her first novel Loving daughters is still vivid in my mind, though I read it over twenty years ago. It’s set in a small coastal town in New South Wales in the 1920s and is about two sisters of marriageable age, Enid the pragmatic home-maker, and Una, the romantic, restless one. Which one will catch the eligible clergyman who comes into town, and does he make the right choice? It’s a wonderful book about character and choice. As you’ve probably assumed, she too focused primarily on the domestic. I can’t help thinking that this focus is another reason why women writers found (find, in fact) it hard to be published.

There is of course something reassuring about late bloomers. They remind us it is never too late. It may be too late at 50 years old to represent your country in the sprint at the Olympics or win Wimbledon, but it’s not too late to write a novel if that’s your passion. I’d love to hear of late bloomers you love (yourself maybe?), Australian or otherwise.

Jessica Anderson, The commandant

Jessica Anderson, The commandant Book cover

Cover image for The commandant (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

When I first read about Sydney University Press’s Australian Classics Library, the book I really wanted to read waThe commandant by Jessica Anderson. It’s her only historical novel, but its subject matter doesn’t stray much from what she told Jennifer Ellison in an interview many years ago, “I was very much, and always have been, preoccupied with people who are strangers in their society” and “I am interested in families… They are interesting – you know, the tangle” (Rooms of their own). This is a clever and thoughtful novel by yet another much overlooked Australian woman writer.

[WARNING: SPOILERS, if you don’t know the history on which this is based]

The plot is pretty simple. It is set in Queensland’s penal settlement of Moreton Bay in 1830. It draws from the real story of the commandant there, Patrick Logan, who was noted for his harsh methods and who was murdered while out on an expedition. In the novel, Logan’s family is joined by his wife’s young sister (“the stranger”), Frances, who, on her way up to the settlement via Sydney, has been introduced to “radical” ideas critical of Logan’s regime. The scene is therefore set for potential conflict either between Patrick and Frances, or within Frances herself, or both.  In the end, it is a bit of both as Patrick finds his practices questioned and Frances confronts the realities of living in a penal settlement.

Except for Frances’s boat trip up to Moreton Bay with some of the settlement’s residents, the novel is set entirely in Moreton Bay. The characters include Logan’s household (family and servants), his wife Letty’s two women friends, officers of the settlement including two medical officers and the man sent to replace Logan, and of course some prisoners. There are also some characters in Sydney – Frances’ would-be beau and the sisters of a newspaper editor jailed for his criticism of the regime and against whom Logan is bringing libel action. The characters are well-drawn, with the significant ones nicely complex. You get a good feel for life in the settlement.

I would love to write about many of the characters as there are some wonderfully meaty ones, but I’ll just focus on Frances, the only character, really, who changes during the course of the novel. At the beginning, she “was seventeen; she was not stupid, but was often absurd”. She is also sympathetic to the idea of reform, which she says she developed through seeing servant life and poverty first-hand in Ireland and which puts her at odds with many in the settlement. She has a lovely ability to question herself, to see her failings, and it is this which enables her to learn from her several painful experiences. By the end, she is wiser in the ways of the world and has learnt to live with “incurable knowledge”, but has not lost her commitment to the cause of humanity.

Much of the story is told in dialogue – in fact, it wouldn’t be hard to turn it into a play/screenplay. Anderson handles this dialogue well, nicely differentiating the characters, from Letty’s lisp to officer Collison’s uneducated speech patterns. Letty’s lisp is an ironic touch – it lulls us into thinking she is one of those superficial flirtatious women but we soon discover that she is more complex than just a pretty little wife. Characters are nuanced by their reactions to each other  as well as by what they say, rather than by a lot of specific authorial comment, though there is that too.

There is also description, including some particularly beautiful ones of the bush during the search expedition for Logan, such as:

…a few clumps of trees, their rough bark the colour of iron, and their foliage a dun green, stood with the junction of trunk and root shrouded (my emphasis) by tall pale grass; and although at his left the river marked out a fissure of brighter greens, none among them were the sappy (again my emphasis) greens of England and Ireland or the dense fleshy greens of the coast … Among and behind this scrub stood big trees with foliage in similar colours, and with trunks of grey, or silvery grey, or of mauve shading to grey or rust, or of the beautiful colour of pink clay. It was as if everything here inclined not to the sun’s bright spectrum, but to those of the mineral earth and the ghostly daytime moon.

This is not an entirely benign landscape she is decribing – but neither does it hang heavily on her tale: her main focus after all is people. Here is an evocative description of Letty:

She fragmented the worry with her laugh, and waved it away with her hands, but it always seemed to reassemble, out there in the air, and float back to resettle on her.

One of the things that intrigued me most about the novel as I was reading it was the narrative form. It is a pretty straight chronology, but with many small flashbacks that help illuminate the characters. Most interesting though are a couple of slight but meaningful foreshadowings which, before the novel’s end, give us a sense of the sisters’ futures. This makes us realise that the novel is not really about them…it is about humanity, about how we treat each other – and, about that special word, mercy. You will have to read it for yourselves to know what I mean.

Jessica Anderson
The commandant
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781920898946

(Review copy supplied by the Sydney University Press)