Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2011

Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), by Jessica Anderson

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?

There’s a deliciously scathing review at English One-o’-Worst (fun to read and wickedly intelligent – even if you liked the novel), and there’s a much more positive one at Kinna Reads.

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.

©Lisa Hill

Tirra Lirra by the River Author: Jessica Anderson
Title: Tirra Lirra by the River
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 1997, first published 1977
ISBN: 9780330359719
Source: Personal Library, bought so long ago that it has a price tag of only $16.95!

Fishpond: Tirra Lirra by the River


  1. You place your readers in a quandary by posting your insightful review with a link to a reviewer who hated it. You might start a trend here – its an interesting concept from a bloggers perspective. Whether it helps you choose your next read is another matter!


    • True, Tom, but it is such an amusing review, I couldn’t bear not to share it!


  2. I haven’t read the wickedly intelligent review yet but bookmarked it to read soon. I note though that a youngish male writes the blog English One-O’-Worst and just as I really can’t understand why books like Tirra Lirra are placed on secondary school reading lists for English I can’t imagine most youngish adult males finding much to enjoy/relate to in this beautiful novel.
    I loved it, sad though it was. Nora’s revelation at the end that the ‘step of a horse, the nod of a plume, come the plumed heads of the curbed horses at my father’s funeral’ is an exquisite rendering of a memory retrieved and at last resolved.
    I don’t see Nora’s life as wasted even though she isn’t a dynamic character. She travelled to London, became a talented dressmaker, appreciated beauty in the world around her and in her own way was adventurous for the time in which she lived. In some ways she reminds me of Teresa Hawkins in Christina Stead’s For Love Alone.


    • I know what you mean, Margaret. I do wonder about the choice of some texts for secondary school book lists but I suspect that it’s very difficult to reconcile the need to ‘engage’ young people (of either gender) while also offering texts that enrich their understanding of the world. Many boys aren’t interested in reading anything with a female main character of any age: should schools acquiesce to that kind of misogyny? On the other hand, if forced to read books that they really don’t like, boys might be put off reading for life and they can certainly make a teacher’s life hell in the classroom and sabotage the lesson for everyone else.
      However I am beginning to think that English One-O’-Worst is on to something: he’s expressing a POV that maybe it’s time to move on from those feminist novels about pre 1960s women frustrated by lack of opportunities? I don’t think he wants to read Ice Station et al, but the Noras of this world are over 80 now and the world has moved on a lot since they were struggling with identity issues and the need for economic indpendence.


  3. […] Lirra by the river, add it to your list. It’s a great read. I read it before blogging, but Lisa has posted her thoughts on her […]


  4. I have finally read it! (I posted my review on Good Reads) I am very glad I didn’t read your review before I read the book. One of the things that I loved about it was that the story was not handed to the reader on a platter. The reader has to puzzle through the fragments of memory. I was lucky that I did not have to read it at school. I don’t think I would have got much out of it when I was 16 or 17.

    Thanks for the links to the other reviews. The ‘scathing review’ went on and on and on. As someone said, that reviewer found an awful lot to talk about a book that he didn’t think much of. Claire Corbett’s review was interesting.


    • Ah well, I do at least warn when there are spoilers, which not all reviewers do!
      Looking back on this, I see that my review is rather naïve, but I find that is often true of my early reviews, reflecting my development as a reader, I suppose.
      I can’t imagine liking it much at 17 but perhaps in the hands of a good teacher, I might have. I was lucky with my Irish Catholic nuns: they genuinely loved literature, and though they failed miserably at converting me to religion, they passed on their love of great books for which I am forever grateful.


      • Yes – spoiler alert is important.

        I don’t think that I would have got much out of it as a 17-year-old because it was a story of an ordinary old woman who, as you note, really does not live what we would regard as a fulfilling life – not very interesting or exciting for a year 12 student. But this is what charmed me about the book. So many women were like that – restrained by cultural expectations that then led to a form of self-censorship which stopped them from grasping opportunities and challenging life to give them something better. Those women were so invisible then so it was refreshing to read about one.


  5. Thank goodness things have changed!


  6. […] she won the Miles Franklin Award for the second time in 1980.  I was expecting it to be as good as Tirra Lirra by the River which had also won the Miles Franklin, in 1978.  But for most of Part One The Impersonators is a […]


  7. Something is deeply suppressed in this novel. It may be that she was unable to express it at the time. I have always been impressed by its silence, not its speech.


    • You make a good point, Roger. Thanks for the comment.
      I don’t think I’ve ever come across a biography of Anderson, a good biographer would fossick out details which could illuminate those silences.
      But I add again that this was a naïve review, written in 2003 even though it’s published here in 2011.


  8. […] Jessica Anderson, Tirra lirra by the river (1978) (Lisa’s post) […]


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