Having just posted the opening lines of Tirra Lirra by the River, I’ve been re-reading my thoughts about it from my 2003 reading journal, and I’ve decided to share them here because there aren’t many reviews of the book, and it seems to be the only one by Jessica Anderson (1916-2010) still in print. She won the Miles Franklin Award for the first time with this novel in 1978, (and went on to win it again with The Impersonators in 1980).
Lisa’s Journal notes, January 1st, 2003
This is a wry novel, softly evocative of warm Queensland nights, and deceptively gentle. In her old age, Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home after a long period away in London. As she recovers from a bout of pneumonia, like Albert Facey in A Fortunate Life she reflects on her life, in her case finally facing up to memories long suppressed.
Unlike Facey’s, Nora’s life seems a wasted life, due in part to her failed marriage and because her work as a dressmaker was a denial of the creativity she showed as a girl. When her kindly neighbour brings her the embroidered wall-hangings that she had designed and given away, she is surprised to see how good they are, and is mildly offended that one of them isn’t valued by its owner.
What was it that made her lead such an empty passionless life? Her widowed mother didn’t like her, and her sister Grace was bossy, but that doesn’t entirely explain why she felt that marrying Colin Porteous was the only viable means of escape. A dull, sanctimonious man who blamed her for being frigid and then complained when she finally discovers passion, he is painted very unsympathetically, and yet we see her faults too. She is scornful about his mother’s house, and she rejoices in the idle life she leads ‘before the children come’. It is only when she realises that they will not (though later she becomes pregnant after a shipboard romance) that she decides to work for May and learn the craft of dressmaking properly.
When Colin wants a divorce, she is relieved, and spends her settlement going to London. The horrors of her abortion put her off romance forever, and she seems crippled in all her relationships by an inability to express herself. There is a strong sense of suppression that limits her: she waits and waits for the doctor’s secrets to be revealed; she doesn’t assert herself with Lyn the cleaner; and she simply drifts into a quiet old age, exchanging meaningless letters with her English friends.
This book was often a set text for secondary school students, probably because it offers opportunities to explore issues like the role of women in the 1940’s and 50’s, looking at topics like Colin refusing to let her work, making all the decisions and denying her an allowance so that she ends up stealing small change and saving it up to get her freedom. Doctor Rainbow’s mother takes an axe to her husband and his siblings, and Nora wonders at the violence of it. Her own attempt at suicide is so much less of a nuisance, and its failure, is just another event that didn’t work out. Where did that inertia come from? Those lowered expectations?
Update: June 2 2012
Do also check out Claire Corbett’s review at Overland: she makes connections about the title that I had completely missed.
Fishpond: Tirra Lirra by the River