Blue Skies by Helen Hodgman, (b.1945-) is the last of my catch-up reviews of books I read while I was away. It’s a remarkable debut novel.
First published in 1976 round about the time I was enjoying being a young mother myself, Blue Skies tells the story of a young mother marooned in Tasmanian suburbia. I think that if I had read the novel back then, when post-natal depression wasn’t much acknowledged or understood outside psychiatric circles, I wouldn’t have known what to make of it. Rather naïve about the lives of others at that time in my life, and with a preference for British classics, I don’t think I would have understood its incisive black humour, nor the social critique. Blue Skies is a classic example of a book that is right for different times in a reader’s life.
In a short novel of only 153 pages, Hodgman sketches this woman’s life with pitiless precision. She has a kindly-but-dull husband called James, a placid little baby daughter called Angelica, and a neighbour who is obsessive about mowing her lawn.
I’d watched it from the beginning.
Before she came, our house had been the last in the road: a tatty full stop to a long line of prosperous weatherboard bungalows. It stood out a bit, as it wasn’t painted in a lurid pastel shade like the others – because I could never make up my mind what colour to do it. Dead colour-selection cards littered the house.
On the far side was a small patch of scrubby bush straggling onto the beach, the one remaining unsold block. For days on end I could forget that I lived in a suburb just by looking out of the right windows.
Then the land was sold and cleared. Trenches were dug. Men built the house.
The woman hired another gang of large soft men, who levelled the earth and drained it. They dug it and primed it to receive the sackfuls of domesticated grass seeds.
These the woman tended herself. A square of spiky grass seeds stood before the house, a vivid and unreal green. Impressive at a distance, but close to it looked pretty sad. The blades were far apart. The dusty earth, growing dustier as summer passed, showed through the gaps like mange and defied her daily watering.
The native grasses rustled and swayed at the edge of this pampered patch. Occasionally it would stake its aboriginal claim to the usurped homeland by launching a seed to fertilise and reclaim a centimetre. Tough though it was, it could not take the almost daily shaving.
In those first few law-mowing days the woman would be at the house early in the morning supervising the seeds. She seemed in a no hurry to move in, as she waited for the grass to grow. I would pass her as she walked back from the beach, but she was too absorbed to speak, keeping herself to herself, which was good while it lasted. (p. 3)
Other mothers nearby chat about knitting patterns and their children but Hodgman’s narrator avoids them at the beach. But alas, even with discouraging blinds pulled down there is no avoiding Mrs Olive Stacy. (In time ‘Ollie’ will even dust her Spanish-colonial style birdbath and a forthcoming gnome). She can’t avoid Mother-in-Law either because she needs her to babysit Angelica on Tuesdays and Thursdays when she visits her lovers. Jonathan (Tuesday) is a restaurateur and Ben (Thursday) is an artist, but also the husband of her best friend Gloria. The pulse-racing secrecy of these reprieves from relentless domesticity brings excitement into her life, but these lovers are destined to have crises of their own.
Hodgman’s tone is acerbic and her imagery is distinctively Australian. Blue skies beat down relentlessly as if to taunt the blackness of the woman’s mood, and ghosts from Tasmania’s indigenous past haunt the story. The plot, bringing suicide and murder into the smug conformity of suburbia, is deliberately confronting. This is not a novel I will forget in a hurry…
Featuring an introduction by Danielle Wood and striking cover art by W.H. Chong, Text Publishing reissued Blue Skies in 2011 (before it launched its Text Classics series with their distinctive yellow covers). Their website lists Helen Hodgman’s other novels:
- Jack and Jill (1978; winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, also reissued by Text);
- Broken Words (1988; winner of the Christina Stead Prize);
- Passing Remarks (1996);
- Waiting for Matindi (1998); and
- The Bad Policeman (2001).
(On the day I wrote this review, I picked up three of Hodgman’s titles second-hand for $27 from Fishpond, one of them for only $6.00. So you can expect more reviews of this remarkable author’s books!)
Author: Helen Hodgman
Title: Blue Skies
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2011
Source: Personal library, recommended by my friend Jenny and purchased from Dymocks with a Christmas book voucher from my parents, $29.95.