Favourite quotes: from Marion Halligan’s Fog Garden

Some time ago, I started a little ad hoc Favourite Quotes series but I haven’t added to it for some time. This post, I actually drafted back then, but never got around to completely it, but I will now!

One of my favourite Australian writers, though I’ve only reviewed one of her recent books on my blog, is Marion Halligan. It’s fitting therefore, that she feature in this little series. The quotes – and there are four – all come from The fog garden, which was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and the Nita Kibble Literary Award (which is for “life writing”). I loved it, and felt it deserved these and more accolades.

I read The fog garden in 2002, a year after it came out, and so, unfortunately, a few years before blogging. It’s an autobiographical novel. In other words, it’s a novel, it’s fiction, but it draws from Halligan’s life. It is about Clare, a novelist, and how she copies with grief after the death of her beloved husband. The novel was triggered or inspired by, or a response to – I’m not sure which here is the most accurate – the death of Halligan’s husband of 35 years.

What I love about it is that as well as being about grief, and the wisdom one learns from the tough experiences of life, it is also about fiction. What I love, in other words, is that it’s about life, it’s about writing, and it is also about reading. It asks us readers to think about how we read. It’s cheeky – and those of you who know how much I love Jane Austen, how much I love Carmel Bird, will know how much I love cheeky writers.

So, here is our first person narrator writing about her character Clare:

She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.  (p. 9)

I mean, really, you’ve got to love that. It’s the real world, but a version of it invented by the author for her character. Just because it’s a recognisable world, and just because the things Clare says and does are “true” doesn’t mean that they are the things author Halligan said, did and believed. They could be but they aren’t necessarily so, and we should not assume they are so, because this is fiction not a memoir. If Halligan had wanted to write a memoir she certainly would have. By writing fiction Halligan was freer to explore her feelings and to play with where they might take her.

Anyhow, here again is our first person narrator writing about writing Clare:

A reader could think that, since Clare is my character, I can make all sorts of things happen to her that I can’t make happen to myself. This is slightly true, but not entirely … only if it is not betraying the truths of her life and character as I have imagined them. (p. 10)

Of course: once you create a character, that character must be true to what you have created.

And here is a little insight into the challenges of writing. I certainly know about writers’ metaphors that have taken me in wrong directions.

That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go. (p. 279)

And, finally, one of my favourite quotes from all the books I’ve read, and one I’ve shared before.

Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul.

If you haven’t read The fog garden, and ever get a chance, do give it a go. It’s a wise – but also lively – book.

Meanwhile, do any of these quotes speak to you?

Nadia Wheatley in conversation with Marion Halligan

Nadia Wheatley, Marion Halligan,

Nadia Wheatley and Marion Halligan, ANU Meet the Author

Nadia Wheatley is, I fear, not as well-known in Australia’s literary firmament as she should be because her credentials are excellent. Not only is there My place (1987) – a wonderful multi-award-winning children’s book about the history of place – but her biography of Charmian Clift, The life and myth of Charmian Clift, has been described by critic Peter Craven as “one of the greatest Australian biographies.” She has appeared here in a Monday Musings list of books recommended by indigenous writers (even though she is not indigenous) for her book, with Ken Searle, The Papunya School book of country and history. And these are just a few of her literary credentials.

All this is to say that when I saw that she was to be a “Meet the author” subject this week at the ANU – on a free night for me, no less – I didn’t hesitate to book. It didn’t hurt, too, that her Conversation partner was to be Marion Halligan (who has appeared here several times, in various guises.)

Now, I don’t want to discuss in detail her latest book – Her mother’s daughter: A memoir – which was the reason for this event, because I have almost finished it and will discuss it in my soon-to-come post, so I’ll just share, briefly, some of the main points from the conversation.

“Caught between an independent woman and a controlling man”

The book’s title suggests that the book is Wheatley’s memoir of her life with her mother (Nina, familiarly called Neen.) However, this is only part of the story. The book is, in fact, like a few I’ve read recently, a sort of hybrid biography-memoir, because it is as much a biography of her mother, who died in 1958 when Nadia was 9, as it is a memoir. Three others I’ve discussed here in recent years are Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. Interestingly, the mothers in all of these books experienced World War 2 in some way, though Wheatley’s mother differs from the other three European-born women in that she was an Australian who went over to work in the war.

Marion Halligan commenced the conversation by commenting that the book was a difficult read, and that it must also have been difficult to write. Wheatley agreed, commenting that people under-estimate children’s ability to suffer, but also their ability to survive…

… and both suffer and survive, Wheatley did. She was caught, she said, “between an independent woman and a controlling man”, but that was only the half of it. She wasn’t helped by a family which – only partly because it was the 1950s – did not feel the need to tell Wheatley what had really happened to her mother, resulting in the young Nadia hoping (if not totally believing), for some years, that one day her mother would return. She was abandoned by her father, whom she described as “a strange, sadistic person.” The family dynamics are complex, and I’ll discuss some of them a little more in my post on the book.

I will say, however, that the underlying biographer’s question for Nadia in writing the book was:

Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?

Because, awful he was … though not, it seems, to Neen in the early years of their relationship when they were working for/with refugees and displaced persons in post-war Europe!

What lifts this book above what could so easily have been a misery memoir is that it also works as social history of an era – of life in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, and of the work Australian nurses did during and after the Second World War. The pictures Wheatley draws of the joys (yes) and challenges of the War for Nina are vivid, and ring true. Nina was a truly independent woman, despite the demands home and family exerted on unmarried “girls” at the time. The pictures Wheatley then draws of Nina post-marriage are, consequently, even more devastating – because of the gap between what could (should) have been and what was. Nina’s dire situation was compounded by the confluence of a controlling, sadistic husband and a time, the 1950s, when women had little agency in the face of such a situation. Even so, Nina did her best …

At one point during the conversation, Wheatley made the interesting – and obvious, if you know their stories – point that there are some parallels between her and her mother’s stories. Both were motherless from a young age, and both became involved in social justice action. There was discussion in fact about how her mother’s work with refugees is relevant to today’s refugee situation. Nina worked for the short-lived UNRRA and was involved in the early definition of just what a refugee is and in the practice of placing them.

Telling the story

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn the Q&A, I asked Wheatley about the structure she chose to use in the book, about the fact that while is it generally chronological, she inserts herself into this chronology at times when she herself wouldn’t have been alive. For example, she describes the young Nadia asking her mother about a photo in an album. This enables us to see Nadia’s interest in her mother’s story, her reaction to her mother’s story, and her mother’s later reaction to the events in her life, at least in terms of how she wants to present them to Nadia. From the reader’s point of view, it makes reading this book far more engaging.

Wheatley answered that felt she needed to be in there “on the quest”, and referred us to AJA Simon’s biography A quest for Corvo: An experiment in biography, as one of her inspirations. She wanted the book to be her journey of discovery – “to have the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story” – rather than just be a presentation of the evidence. Again, I will talk more about this in my post, but Wheatley did share some of the stories about how she went about this unravelling. I like this approach to non-fiction, not only because it’s usually engaging, but because it can strengthen the authority or integrity of the work.

There was more to the conversation – but some of it, as I’ve already said, will come out in my post, and some of it is best left for you to read yourselves in the book. I mustn’t give it all away!

Vote of thanks

To conclude, MC Colin Steele introduced The Canberra Times’ past – and, distressingly, to date, last – literary editor, Gia Metherell, to give the vote of thanks. In doing so, she said that Wheatley’s book shows why childhood biographies can be so potent. She quoted the late Australian critic Geraldine Pascall* (I think) who said that Australian writers write more often and more potently about their childhood than anyone else, besides English and French writers. What an interesting thought on which to end a thoroughly engaging conversation.

* Gia Metherell clarifies this in the comments below saying that it wasn’t Geraldine Pascall to whom she was referring but English academic Roy Pascal. However, on checking later, she realised she had misremembered and it was Richard Coe, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Australian: Childhood, Literature and Myth”, Southerly, 41, no. 2, 1981. Thanks Gia.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
8 October 2018

Carmel Bird launches Marion Halligan’s latest at Paperchain

Sometimes blogging brings you little thrills, and I had one a few days ago when Carmel Bird, one of Australia’s literary luminaries, emailed me with the offer to post her launch speech for Marion Halligan’s latest book. Was this out of order she asked? As if! So, I attended the delightful launch, and received the text from Carmel Bird’s hands. Here it is …

Carmel Bird launches Goodbye Sweetheart

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered.

Marion Halligan, Goodbye Sweetheart

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

For a writer, the so-called literary world is made up, as are many worlds, of friends and enemies. Marion and me, we are friends. You don’t invite your enemies to launch your books. Goodbye Sweetheart is Marion’s twenty-second book, and it’s the first one I have had the honour of launching. I can tell you this is a great pleasure.

Margaret Atwood says she thinks that all narrative writing is motivated by a fear and fascination with mortality. I agree with her. This doesn’t mean the details of the plots are necessarily going to focus on death. But sometimes they do. The publisher’s advertising for Goodbye Sweetheart begins by telling you the main character has just drowned, that the novel is going to explore the mourning of his family. And clearly there is going to be plenty of that other important topic, sex. In fact the two key subjects of fiction – sex and death – are entwined in the title Goodbye Sweetheart.

The blue, blue cover of the book is soothing, until you connect the shadow at the top with the information about the drowning. The story begins and ends with water – William drowns in the luxury pool of a fancy hotel, and ultimately his ashes are scattered in the sea, becoming ‘part of the shredding of the water on the rocks below’. When I talk fancy here, I’m quoting the book. His son and one of his wives then watch the moon on the water – a benign and hope-filled image that lulls the reader as the book is closed.

Novels often pose a question for the reader. Goodnight Sweetheart asks not only how you would behave if you were part of William’s family, but how, in your heart, you would mourn.

The narrator suggests that there are enough births, deaths and marriages, enough anguish here for half a dozen nineteenth century novels. This is a bit of a challenge for the writer. But Marion is up to it of course. The rhythms of her sentences, the precision of her words. One of the wives is advised to seek the joy of grief, the gift of sorrow, but she thinks these are just the threads of words all plaited together making a pattern but having no meaning. Later on she realizes that the true thing is that William loved her, and this will always be true. So there is the ‘true thing’, the good thing, the meaning. And fiction may be motivated by death, but its aim is usually to seek out meaning. To unravel the tangles of lives and to present the reader with a pattern that makes some sense of it all. Another character says ‘Meaning is what we make for ourselves.’ Marion takes a pretty big cast of characters and weaves them – I am inclined to say she stitches them up – into a pattern, and the meaning – the true thing – emerges and stays in the reader’s mind.

Now this is getting to sound rather philosophical and serious – have I forgotten about the sex and death thing? No. I have not. The story unfolds in present-day Australia, in the domestic lives of an extended and muddled family. Early on, a character points out that some of the great traditions of literature had a domestic beginning. This story is going to be domestic, not epic or anything like that. But it will frequently spin the focus round to someone such as Milton or Browning or, in particular George Eliot. For one of William’s sons is a great admirer of Middlemarch. The narrative refers back to the dense narratives of myth and poetry and fiction.

Now a lovely thing, speaking of the domestic again, is the way the titles of the chapters keep bringing you back to the very ordinary everyday. Like no chapter headings you have ever seen. There’s a list of them in the front – ‘The gym is busy’ – ‘Lynette plans a sale’ – ‘Jack goes fishing’. They play so sweetly against the grand themes of death and love and betrayal. Love might be the true thing, but the fabric of everyday life is made up of things such as ‘Helen comes home late’ – and ‘Aurora drinks vodka’. Watch out for ‘Barbara drinks the last of the wine’, though. Of course, people are often drinking things – and eating nice stuff too. Marion never lets a good story get in the way of a fine meal.

Now I want to talk about coincidence. It is such a joyful thing that happens really quite frequently in everyday life. It also happens quite a bit in literature – think of the works of Dickens, for one. It isn’t always easy to make coincidence smooth and acceptable in fiction. But at the end of Goodbye Sweetheart there is a delightful one, and it is part of the melody of the novel, is a graceful gift offered to one of the nicest characters. It will put a smile on your face. Not only is there love, there is hope. Even the title of the chapter in which it happens is a joy – suggesting as it does that the young man is at last on the right path – it’s called ‘Ferdie takes the bus’.

There are also a few ghosts involved along the way, and a rich vein of fascinating short narratives, one in particular that appealed to me – the tale, legend, of a boat that came, once upon a time, into the bay at Eden. It had picked up smallpox in India when it took on a cargo of silk. The infected silk was buried with the bodies of the dead. Then guess what – people dug up the infected silk and sold it, and the ladies of the town made it into dresses. The complex everyday lives of the main characters are threaded with mysterious narratives such as that one. And these narratives form a subtle, dark undertow to the everyday problems of the characters. So while the surfaces of lives are followed in meticulous detail, from the clothes people wear to the food they eat, the wines they drink, the glasses they drink from, the landscapes they contemplate – a darker undertow works away in the depths.

So, William dies. His wife, his two ex-wives, his children, his mistress – I think I’ve got it covered – gradually gather, revealing their own stories, discovering parts of the story of William, until William is ashes in the sea, and the moon moves across the water.

You are going to love reading this novel. You are going to love having it alongside all the rest of Marion’s books. It is my honour and joy to launch it on its way to the open arms of your lucky bookshelves.

– Paperchain Bookshop, Canberra, April 14, 2015

PS Carmel has what she calls a “sleepy blog”, Blue Lotus. She plans to post this speech there also. Do go check her out because there you will find her short story, “When honey meets the air”, which I featured in my review last year of Australian love stories. It’s one of those pieces that has you chuckling, marvelling and puzzling all at once. Carmel’s next book, a collection of short stories titled My hearts are your hearts, will be published by Spineless Wonders later this year.

Marion Halligan’s reponse

No, I don’t have her speech too, but I did make some brief notes! Mostly, of course, she thanked various people – publisher and editors, family, and Carmel. However, she did say a few other things. Responding to Carmel’s comment on chapter titles, she said she has to name, not number, her chapters, because she doesn’t write them in order and needs to recognise them when she comes to shuffling them around! Don’t you love it? I can see why Halligan and Bird are such friends, they such have a wonderfully confident cheekiness about them. (I’m sure you detected some cheekiness in Bird’s speech).

Marion also commented that reading about death isn’t necessarily miserable. Death is something we all have to face up to, some sooner than later, she said (!), so we may as well get used to it. Must say I agree with her. I’m not one to shy away from books that deal with grief and death. I know many people love Joan Didion’s beautiful memoir, The year of magical thinking, but Halligan’s novel, The fog garden, is an equally beautiful book, a novel, about the loss of a loved partner.

Finally, Marion praised the book’s designer, Sandy Cull, who also designed Valley of grace and Shooting the fox. She’s right – I have all three now – and they are all, simply, luminous. It was a delightful launch involving two special Australian writers – and I now have a signed copy of Halligan’s book in my hands, and Bird’s thoughtful speech about this book and fiction in general preserved on my blog for posterity. Thanks Carmel. Thanks Marion.

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.

Marion Halligan on fact, fiction and character

More on playing with that line between fact and fiction… One of my favourite writers – though I have nowhere near read all her works – is Marion Halligan, who also happens to be local to my town. Halligan has been shortlisted for and/or won several signifcant Australian literary awards but I’d be surprised if many readers overseas had ever heard of her. A particularly beautiful novel of hers is The fog garden (2002) which she wrote after her  husband’s death. It’s about love and grief (reminding me of Joan Didion‘s non-fiction work, The year of magical thinking which was published in 2005), but it also explores the nature of fiction, and the relationship between life and art.

And so, here she is introducing the heroine:

She isn’t me. She is a character in fiction. And like such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.

And here she is, the next page, on keeping your character honest:

A reader could think that, since Clare is my character, I can make all sorts of things happen to her that I can’t make happen to myself. This is slightly true, but not entirely … only if it is not betraying the truths of her life as I have imagined them.

Some readers may not like this sort of self-conscious writing but I often enjoy it … I like the recognition that we are, writer and reader, meeting in a very particular space, that of art (or is it artifice!). I like it that Halligan is here writing fiction inspired by a very personal experience and tackling head on the questions her readers will raise … playing with us, teasing us even, but also teaching us about the nature of fiction.

Marion on Marion (Halligan)

A few days ago I posted a review of Marion Halligan’s latest book, Valley of Grace, and mentioned that Halligan had attended my bookgroup meeting at which we discussed the book. I didn’t, however, share in that post all of the things that Halligan told us – and I won’t in this post either. Some things are just not meant to be shared! Nonetheless, there are things we asked her that are of general interest to readers interested in writers and writing, and these I will share…

As readers often ask writers, we asked her about her writing process. She started off by saying that she never says she has writer’s block. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t get stumped at times but that when she does she just moves on to other writing she has on the go. Valley of Grace was, she said, written essentially over 20 years. She made notes for it back in 1989 when she was living in that apartment in Paris that overlooked the Val de Grâce church. And then, when she got a little stuck in her novel The point, which was published in 2004, she took out the notes she’d made back then and worked them up into a short story. Sometime later, she realised that it was more than a short story and voilà, we now have the book (though it took perhaps a little more than voilà for her to get from short story to book!).

Hand and pen, from Clker.Com

Hand and pen, from Clker.Com

Now, here’s the interesting bit: Halligan writes by hand! She says that the slowness of the eye-hand-paper process makes you think harder and results, for her anyhow, in fewer drafts. Essentially, she writes the story out by hand and then reads it over crossing out and adding in, etc. She then reads it again – often reversing the changes she’d made! It is only then that she types it into her computer, and the sense we got was that at this point it’s pretty much ready to go. We didn’t – silly us – ask her much about the publisher’s editors.

We talked a bit about the use of imagery, including metaphors. She says that much of this is unconscious, that if you are an experienced writer and you get into your story’s mode, the imagery seems to just come (such as the use of light, yellow etc in Valley of Grace). She talked specifically about the challenge of using metaphor and how writers often don’t think them through. Her example of a poorly thought through metaphor was  one writer’s description of a person’s bottom during lovemaking as “white dunes of sand”! The mind boggles rather. Anyhow, this brought to my mind a statement she makes in one of her more self-conscious books, The fog garden:

That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go.

She had more to say on writing, such as to beware of using too many adjective and adverbs, and that for her books are not about answers but about questions. In Valley of Grace the over-riding question, really, is about the soul, about what makes us human. Now, it’s hard to get a bigger question than that!

We also talked a little about reading and what we like. Halligan is not keen on issue(ideas)-based fiction: she doesn’t think it’s interesting. This is an issue I have referred to briefly in a couple of my reviews, specifically in This earth of mankind and The workingman’s paradise.

Finally, we couldn’t let her go without asking her about her literary influences. Not surprisingly, given that she’s been writing for a long time now, she couldn’t really say, but she did name some of her favourite writers. These included Margaret Drabble, William Trevor, and John Banville. Interesting, eh, that they are all Irish or English! Clearly, I really must read that William Trevor languishing my TBR pile!

Anyhow, you can probably tell from all this that Halligan was generous with her ideas and her time. It was a real treat having her there…

Marion Halligan, Valley of grace

Valley of Grace book cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Valley of Grace book cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Delicious but sly are the first words that come to mind when I think about Marion Halligan’s latest novel, Valley of Grace. Take this for example:

You know, people think flowers are pretty. Sentimental. Frivolous even. But the fact is, everything begins in the garden. Humans. Society. Civilisation. Evil. Things bud, bloom, weather, age, die. There is as much decay as there is burgeoning. Gardens offer emblems of our passage through the world.

Sly because you know she is alluding to the Garden of Eden here but, without the snakes, apples or trees, the garden symbolism is wider, more encompassing than the simple biblical Fall of Man. Delicious because the language flows so beautifully – and it’s typical of the sure writing that’s found throughout the book. The style is relaxed and flowing, even when it is staccato (if that makes sense). It feels conversational, and yet it is not colloquial. And, it contains Halligan’s hallmarks – wonderful descriptions of food and wine, of home and gardens.

The novel is set in contemporary Paris and chronicles a few years in the life of Fanny and her family and friends. At the beginning of the novel she is 25, single, and working with the gay Luc in his antiquarian bookshop, but very soon she marries builder and restorer of old buildings, Gérard, who is 38. There’s no mystery about this – you can see it coming and it comes. What doesn’t come after that is a baby.

There are no big dramas in this book so if that’s what you like, this is not for you. It is however the book for me, because while I can enjoy a book with drama, that’s not what I read books for. I read them for the very things that I got out of this book: astute observation of humans and how we think and behave, combined with writing that delights, inspires and grabs. Valley of Grace explores all the sorts of things that make up human experience – love and friendship, betrayals, secrets, appearance versus reality, and more besides – but most of all it is about babies and children. The having of them, the not having of them, the healthy and the damaged, the child and the god-child, and the wild child are all covered in this neat little book.

And, in fact, as Halligan told us at our bookgroup meeting tonight (to which we’d invited her and she’d wonderfully accepted), children were a major inspiration for the book. She lived in Paris in 1989 and, from her apartment window, could see the church, Val de Grâce, which was built by Anne of Austria as her part of a bargain with God to give her a child (Louis XIV, no less). This story fed into Haligan’s thinking about fertility (the presence of it and the absence of it) and about how in the past women came to “a bad end” if they didn’t have a baby or had a baby at the wrong time. She said that in the 1960s we thought this would all change but in fact it hasn’t quite turned out that way because women are having babies later and the result is more problems (such as infertility, increased miscarriages, “damaged” babies). This book is, then, her meditation on children – who they are, what they mean to us. And the following will show you just what Halligan thinks they mean:

Taking an angry or maybe anguished baby and changing it from a stiff protesting awkward bundle into a relaxed kitten-like creature seems to Fanny as important a thing as anybody could ever do.

The novel is told in third person but from different perspectives in different chapters – with some wonderful set-pieces, such as the story of Sabine and her arrogant philosopher husband Jean-Marie to whom she delivers “the pavilion girls”. Halligan said that telling the story this way replicates the way life goes – we are the heroes of our own stories, but bit-players in those of others. This makes sense – and certainly works well in the book.

There is a luminous quality to the book, conveyed largely through imagery to do with light and colour (mainly yellows). Mostly it is comforting, but sometimes it is not. Here is Fanny in the Val de Grâce:

She looks up at the immensity of the pale grey stone. Even with all the decoration, the cherubs, the frescos, the marble and gilt columns, it has a bareness, a coldness. It’s the colour of concrete, There’s no stained glass. The light is silvery; when the sun shines, lemony. There is no comfort in it, as there is in her house.

And then in her apartment:

She looks at the graceful space of the apartment. At the light, greenish gold today with summer sun and the fresh leaves on the chestnut trees, their milky white flowers buzzing with bees.

It’s a short book – just under 250 pages – and a rather gentle one. It’s sometimes a little sad, but other times it has a wry humour.  It’s well researched, but the research hangs lightly on it. Its ending is one of the most inspired I’ve read for a long time – but you’ll have to read it yourself to see if you agree.

I have read a few Halligans over the years – Lovers knots, The golden dress, The fog garden and The point – and have enjoyed them all. I’ll close this post with a favourite line from The fog garden because I think it describes this book to a T:

Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul.