The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer
This piece of neo-Victorian fantasy is so unusual in the landscape of Australian fiction that at first I was not quite sure what to make of it. The story is set between the remote mountain village of Canyon and the small city of Pitch, with a cast of characters including whores, contortionists, a downtrodden family of gravediggers, a clumsy yet sensitive policeman, his upright and judgemental sisters Mary and Ann, the circus mute Otto Cirque and his dandyish brother Arcadia, and Ivorie herself, who is, if not quite a heroine, certainly the axis on which the plot turns.
Forced by a murder, a suicide and a couple of disasters to abandon the village, Ivorie Hammer moves with the people of Canyon to Pitch, but as the villagers are descendants of the circus that was once its sole industry, the people of Pitch are disdainful and wary. The migrants bring with them a history that also affects Pitch and its residents, bringing a great deal of upset to the conservative order of the town.
The release accompanying this book referred to Dickens, but The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer really sits somewhere between Mervyn Peake and Lemony Snicket, in a storybook-Victorian setting that readers will find easy to imagine, though without the former’s mad genius nor the latter’s accessibility to a younger audience.
The archness of the narrative voice is similar, though, and sustained throughout without a slip; Preston’s wit is apparently as inexhaustible as her vocabulary. The author of many short pieces as well as a biography of Howard Arkley, the Melbourne writer, teacher and performer has apparently eclectic tastes, reflected in the sheer variety of interests and conflicts she has braided through her narrative.
Of plot, there is plenty, as several murders historic and new interweave with Ivorie’s search for her own parentage; several others conspire to solve the mystery for her, while she deals haphazardly with the raising of a strange daughter; meanwhile, archaeology, herbal medicine, fake African artefacts, home brewing, sex work, and the justice system all intersect.
All of this complexity does tend to obscure focus, and there are a few dead-ends and dropped stitches among the entertainments. But the overall impression is of a stroll though a labyrinthine fiction in which it is never really possible to become lost. The complexity invites anticipation of further twists and turns, though the epistolary finish is more about tying up loose ends than weighty revelation; the conclusions aren’t as surprising as we are led to expect.
For all that, this is a remarkably well-structured debut. The range of eccentric characters, though not always original, are delightfully and sympathetically drawn. The three threads of murder mystery, social drama and genealogical search provide enough narrative momentum to keep most readers engaged. Perhaps Ivorie Hammer lacks mass enough to carry the work to any great depth, but it should also be said that Preston manages to avoid clambering up into the higher altitudes of twee which could render a work like this insubstantial, or a mere folly. Though the humour is generally non-threatening, there are a few comments on class and gender, which offer laughs at the expense of her characters. The politics of child-rearing are less clearly, but I think more meaningfully interrogated in later chapters, as Ivorie’s family story is mirrored by a maternity dispute, and her emotions become strangely disengaged.
But the fun far outweighs the seriousness, and that is, in the end, how this book demands to be judged: it opens and closes with the circus, and asks no more of its readers than to accept its entertainments, which are many and various. Perhaps the greatest surprise in this book coming from an Australian author is that, unlike so much of our literature, it does not appear to need to be taken seriously at all. At one point the narrator even declares something similar, in a mild-mannered manifesto: ‘You must forgive the lapse, but a little romance is necessary in a work of fiction.’
As an entertainment, Ivorie Hammer is a qualified success. Like its female lead, it is too well-built and sensible to reduce itself to silliness; like its other, quieter hero, it is best regarded as a clever and satisfying work of escapism.