Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2011

Little People, by Jane Sullivan

A little while ago I wrote that I thought that the Australian literary scene had become much more interesting lately.  There are sassy books by debut authors – such as Glissando by David Musgrave and Come Inside by Glenys Osborne – while at the same time publishers continue to support established writers of highly innovative if not best-selling books like David Foster’s sparkling Sons of the Rumour and Brian Castro’s enigmatic The Bath Fugues. And now we have Jane Sullivan playing around with melodrama as a form in this highly original novel, Little People.

Usually, when I describe a scene or plot as melodramatic, I’m using the word as a pejorative, meaning that it’s unconvincing, overdrawn or extravagantly emotional in an unsuitable context and the author has overdone it.  But in Little People the melodrama is deliberate; Sullivan’s novel is a 21st century reworking of a form which was popular during the 19th century but fell into novelistic disrepute, though melodrama certainly persists on TV and film.  According to wordiq.com

In melodrama there is constructed a world of heightened emotion, stock characters and a hero who rights the disturbance to the balance of good and evil in a moral universe. … There is a neat structure or formula to melodrama: A villain poses a threat, the hero escapes the threat (or rescues the heroine) and there is a happy ending.

Sullivan’s historical novel inverts nearly all these expectations, within the form.  There is a damsel in distress to be rescued – but she rescues her ‘seducer’ – and more besides.  There are potential villains aplenty, but none is the easily identifiable stock character six-foot-tall chap in a swirling black cloak, and as the plot swirls about the reader cottons on only just before the heroine does.  Is he the man in miniature, a member of P.T. Barnum’s Troupe of Little People (who really did tour Australia in 1870)? A rival, a member of the troupe or its backstage team?  Is the mysterious Mrs Bleeker part of the plot, and anyway, what is their plot?   There is good and evil but is it madness or badness?

Mary-Ann, the governess done wrong in the usual way, finds her ‘interesting condition’ an asset rather than a moral and social disaster.  She negotiates a  minefield of theatrical jealousies and rivalry with a combination of aplomb and pre-natal passivity, not to mention surviving kidnapping and other exciting eventualities.   I did get a little bit tired of her constant bouts of nausea but I suppose that’s a 21st century update of the ladylike fainting fits so pervasive for the 19th century heroine.  Dainty, Mary-Ann is not.  How can she be, when she is twice the size of her companions?  She is more like a young and braver version of Miss Marple than Pauline of the infamous Perils.

The structure of the novel mirrors the story’s origins in 19th century circus.  The main event is narrated by MC Mary-Ann, while ‘sideshows’ are narrated by the Little People themselves.  There are even authentic photos of the Little People for us to gawk at, for Sullivan’s characters are real people: ‘General Tom Thumb’ Charles Stratton and his wife Lavinia Warren; her sister Minnie Warren, and ‘Commodore’ George Washington Nutt; together with the ‘full-sized’ Sylvester Bleeker, manager of the troupe, and his wife the enigmatic Mrs Sylvester Bleeker.

The story takes us on a wild ride.  A desert crossing to make a deadline in Adelaide, floods on the Goulburn River, treading the boards in Ballarat, a duel in Sydney – with great attention to detail in the setting the story has the authentic feel of those billboards we’ve all seen in old museums and movies.  The reader can almost hear the piano pounding out the signature tunes of villain and hero as they make their entrances and exits!

Great fun.

©Lisa Hill

Update 13.7.12
Alice Robinson has written a most interesting review of Little People at Criterature.  It locates this story in a wider context – 19th century Australia as a place of freaks.

Little People: A NovelAuthor: Jane Sullivan
Title: Little People
Publisher: Scribe, 2011
ISBN: 9781921640964
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing.

Availability:
Fishpond: Little People: A Novel
or direct from Scribe Publications


Responses

  1. Sounds like great fun Lisa. I do like it when writers reinvent/twist old forms into something new.

  2. It’s very clever!
    BTW Did you see the irony? Today’s the day that Jane Sullivan writes a piece in The Age about reviewers having a gender bias against female authors!
    I have checked my bias, (see categories) and 46% of my reviews (20th/21st century authors) have female authors.


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