Belonging could very nearly have been yet another of those ‘genre’ books: lifestyle/psuedo-travel/memoir, of the sort written by middle aged women who go to live in rural France or Italy and regale their readers with tales of quaint behaviour and ‘real’ values. Mary Moody is Australia’s worst of the type, because - under the guise of honesty – she included humiliating her husband in the memoir, but most of them are warm-hearted, if naive, and they make pleasant, easy reading - evoking nostalgia for past trips and vague plans for more…
And so it was that I approached this book. I had finished Voss, and was looking for something lighter and less demanding, knowing full well that whatever I chose I would end up judging it as wanting – because it wasn’t going to be as brilliant as Voss. Do other readers do this? It’s most unfair, I know…
Anyway, I curled up under the doona with Belonging, confident that I would nod off to sleep dreaming of fresh-found truffles and quixotic tradesmen. Huggan had lived a peripatetic life, and was now settled in the Cevannes mountains in France. In middle age, she was struggling with learning the language, and trying to build another network of friends, all for love of her husband who wanted to live there. Delicious simple meals, shopping in the traditional way, Autumn leaves, snow, the inevitable travails and the counting of the blessings, memories of other places lived in, all lovingly described by a writer who seems to be a very nice person. A bit fragmentary, a bit of a muddle, but a gentle bedtime read…
Or so it seemed until I came to the chapter entitled ‘Homage to Kenko’. She is in Tasmania where she is Writer-in-Residence and staying in a house in Swansea. She is bothered by not being able to pull strands together to write about our Tassie: like so many of us she has fallen in love with it, ‘like a thunderbolt to the heart’ (p200) and dearly wants to do it justice. As a violent storm hurls itself at the coast, she reads instead – and discovers the organising principle of this book, Belonging.
Kenko is a Japanese philosopher who venerates uncertainty. He says uniformity is undesirable and that ‘Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth’. (p224). He writes in a random mode of composition called ‘follow the brush’, a form that the Japanese think is ‘more honest than fiction’ (p223). They don’t want to impose pattern on experience, but rather allow the reader to
encounter apparent formlessness and, in moving from one subject to another, enjoy tracing subtle links between them. The work of making patterns is left to the open-minded reader – allowing an infinite number of variations to occur. (p224)
I think this is what Huggan has done with Belonging. The fragmentary style and meanderings are deliberate, not a sign of an endearing amateurism. They mirror the episodic way she has lived her life in a series of apparently random decisions to make homes in Canada, Kenya, France, the Philippines, Tasmania and back to France again. What seemed like a bit of a muddle was in fact the intentional organising principle of the book.
Mind you, it does make me wonder, what is the intrinsic difference between random thoughts done deliberately and random thoughts at random?
How very modernist!
Or is that post-modernism??
There is a reading group guide at Random House.
Author: Isabel Huggan
Publisher: Bantam (Random House)
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library