Are all Australian novels about finding a home? Discuss.
– Anna Krien after judging match one (Kate Grenville’s The Secret River vs Joan London’s Gilgamesh) in the 2011 Meanjin Tournament of Books. Tirra Lirra by the River lost out to My Brilliant Career in match three.
From the back cover: Nora Porteous has spent most of her life waiting to escape. Fleeing from her small-town family and then from her stifling marriage to a mean-spirited husband, Nora arrives finally in London where she creates a new life for herself as a successful dressmaker.
Now in her seventies, Nora returns to Queensland to settle into her childhood home. But Nora has been away a long time, and the people and events are not at all like she remembered them.
This is a well-worn literary trope: middle-aged-to-elderly person looks back on her life and finds that her memories do not mean quite what she thought they did, a scenario so clichéd as to be virtually unusable now. Except it’s not. Barnes won the Booker this year with a similar set up in The Sense of an Ending. Anne Enright’s Booker-prize winning The Gathering, John Banville’s Booker-prize winning The Sea, Peter Carey’s Illywhacker and many many other books use this device.
Why are literary authors, in particular, so fond of it?
One reason is that a central problem of the novel is not how to convey information but how to withhold it. Telling a story blow by blow from the start is often unworkable so having an older person looking back allows the author to elide the boring bits and focus only on what is significant.
Another reason is that literary fiction often relies on tension generated by questions such as ‘why is this character like this?’ and on reversals and twists not so much in what happened but in what it means.
Such novels often depend on the traumatic childhood moment revisited with adult understanding, as in The Sea and The Gathering. If Freud had never existed, modern authors would have had to invent him.
It’s possible, given I’m not usually attracted to the old-person-reminiscing scenario, that I might not have picked up Tirra Lirra by the River without the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. This challenge was set up by blogger Elizabeth Lhuede to help counteract the gender bias in the reviewing of Australian women’s writing. The blurb quoted above, however, is a good example of how hard it is to write a synopsis of a literary book. It sounds dull. But this book won the Miles Franklin Award in 1978 and I felt I should give it a go, especially as I’d never read anything by Jessica Anderson.
I’m glad I did. I loved this book and think it expresses brilliantly so many dilemmas of its time and place: the sense of never feeling at home pervading settler culture in Australia; the related sense that real life is always ‘elsewhere’ but that even when you arrive ‘elsewhere’ it still escapes you; the way this becomes bound up with the romantic yearnings of young women to escape, to realise the self.
This desire to realise the self was traditionally supposed to be fulfilled through a man but as the feminist project developed over the twentieth century realising the self through a woman’s own efforts became possible. Poor Nora is caught right at the junction of these alternatives, the same dilemma that bedevilled Miles Franklin’s Sybylla. No wonder Meanjin pitted these two books against each other.
Tirra Lirra by the River quotes from Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott. The Lady is cursed never to look directly upon reality but may only see reflections in her mirror and then translate those shadows of the world into her weaving. So, she is an artist but an artist who cannot bear the full glare of the Real, the Real that flashes into her mirror in a vision of masculine splendour: ‘Tirra lirra,’ by the river/Sang Sir Lancelot.
The Lady of Shalott is the perfect symbol for Nora Porteous: the glamour of European high culture, of Camelot, is unattainable, as is its male apotheosis, the shining knight with his ‘gemmy bridle’ and his ‘coal-black curls’. Nora Porteous is also an artist in textiles: she embroiders beautiful tapestries and later becomes a skilled dressmaker.
Eventually Nora does escape provincial Queensland and many reviewers have commented on how gripping the book’s central sections are which narrate Nora’s unhappy marriage and her friendships with bohemians in Potts Point in 1950s Sydney.
This portrait of a vanished Sydney is riveting and a great reminder of the virtues of the realist novel; what other form can capture not just the outer events but how it felt to live in this time, this place? The novel is the only time-travel device we have or are ever likely to have.
This section is even more important because through reading it we feel what it’s like to be an intelligent, creative woman forced to be dependent and passive. (Fans of current YA fiction, where it is now an ironclad rule that female characters must be active and ‘empowered’ should read this.) Nora is not allowed to work and has no money of her own. As a result she’s completely under the thumb of her husband and her mother-in-law.
London stands for the grand escape into a wider world but it is colourless compared to the Sydney sections. Nora’s life there is cramped, grey and shadowed by illness though she does achieve some professional success and independence.
Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t mind the contemporary thread of the novel, in which Nora settles back into her childhood house.
Though this strand is uneventful, Anderson’s writing is exquisite: ‘my dropped flag of ashen hair’, ‘The poetry in my head was like a jumble of broken jewellery’.
Anderson describes a miniature enchanted landscape conjured for Nora’s child self by a flaw in the window glass: ‘But it is not richly green, as it used to be in the queer drenched golden light after the January rains, when these distortions in the cheap thick glass gave me my first intimation of a country as beautiful as those in my childhood books.’
Anna Krien’s question about Australian novels in the Meanjin Tournament of Books is relevant. The interweaving of the strands shows that Nora is never truly at home: not in her Queensland childhood house, not in Sydney except for the all-too-brief idyll at Potts Point, not in the longed-for escape to London and not in the final return to the childhood house.
The book ends, true to its chosen form, in a revelation. This is the meaning of an image that has haunted the narrator her whole life: the step of a horse, the nod of a plume. For me the revelation was so moving I finished the book in tears. Anderson’s story hints that finally, our home is in other people.
Claire Corbett crewed on feature films before becoming a policy advisor in the NSW Cabinet Office. She was a senior policy adviser on water and genetically modified organisms for the Environment Protection Authority and child and family health for NSW Health.
When We Have Wings, her speculative fiction crime novel about humans genetically and surgically engineered to be able to fly, was published by Allen & Unwin in July 2011. See more of her work at clairecorbett.com