Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2013

Blue Skies, by Helen Hodgman

Blue SkiesBlue 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!)

*Update 2/6/17 Danielle Wood has written a super review of this novel for the SRB.

Author: Helen Hodgman
Title: Blue Skies
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 9781921758133
Source: Personal library, recommended by my friend Jenny and purchased from Dymocks with a Christmas book voucher from my parents, $29.95.

Availability

Fishpond: Blue Skies
Or direct from Text Publishing.


Responses

  1. Oh yes, she’s a writer I’ve been meaning to get back to. I read Broken words when it came out and enjoyed it a lot. I’ve often wondered why she is so little talked about. Interesting how some writers seem to be just below the radar. I’ll add Blue skies to my list of books to read.

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  2. It is a nice thing to discover a writer who hasn’t gotten the recognition she deserved, and Helen Hodgman apparently fits that description

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    • Yes, two in the same week: Helen Hodgman and Alan Loney!

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  3. This sounds like an author I should discover! Thank you

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  4. […] on grief which situates her characters in the wider world.  By contrast Helen Hodgman in Blue Skies (1976) is more domestic in her concerns, capturing the inertia of suburban life for women in the […]

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  5. Something reminded today of this novel and I looked up the reviews to see what they said. I read Blue Skies when it came out, with particular interest because it was rumoured to be a roman a clef – referring to certain not quite forgotten Hobart scandals.

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    • O ho! Now that I did not know!
      Can you tell, without either of us getting sued, that is?

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      • I wrote a reply and it seems to have disappeared because i was fiddling around to try to ensure it wasn’t going to be published or only in extract. So here goes again maybe in more condensed form.

        In 1961 an underground restaurant opened in Hobart. It was underneath the premises of a hotel, which enabled it to have a liquor licence, the first and only restaurant to have this. The chap who was running it, let’s call him Jonathan though his name was more irishy, was a rather obviously louche character who loved to sit around a table drinking eating for free mostly and talking till all hours with us, uni arts graduates and postgraduates. A sort of intellectual salon – not a business! He was obviously not quite what he professed to be, and by the next year, the last time I ate there, I think he had been either pulled into line or supplanted. Then my memory is vague, and also I came to Adelaide in 1966 so don’t know the next details. Perhaps there were rumours over the years, and obviously he had a less respectable life than we saw at The Bistro. I suspect police did come into it at the end, and Sand M somewhere, as a year or two or three later he was found dead in his flat in odd circumstances that were more or less suppressed.

        Ben is entirely fictional, I think and never heard otherwise. I don’t recall Helen Hodgman (nee something else) but she is about four years younger than me. I only know that when the book came out I caught talk from Hobart friends that it referred to the above ‘scandal’ if anything so covered up actually became one. She may have known him, he may have been interested in young girls, I couldn’t say. But it was known in 1976 what was in Blue Skies.

        If you could catch up with anyone who was around the uni / Hobart in the early 60’s -all of us very elderly now – you might get some more background. Another Tas born writer who has featured real incidents and people in a novel is Amanda Lohrey, The Morality of Gentlemen, but this is political! Also to a tiny extent a character in her second so offended a Tas senator that he wanted the book withdrawn.

        That seems to be it. There’s nobody to sue us as far as I know!

        Anne Harrex

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      • Later: For fun I tried googling Bistro Hobart 1961 and would you believe there is a new book about it. My facts above seem to differ in details from the entry on line, but who knows how much of such a story can be brought to light after so long. Hobart in those days was a sucker for an outsider from the mother country aiming to bring us some excitement and sophistication. Bit it would be interesting to read Tim Bowden’s introduction, as he is a slightly older contemporary of mine.

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        • My goodness!
          This is the book you are talking about? https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-02/the-bistro-documenting-the-history-of-hobarts-tiny-byo-venue/6905160
          ***
          I did know about the Lohrey book, because I discovered the attempt to sue when I reviewed it and so was very careful if what I said in my review!

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          • Yes, that’s it. I see a while lot of reviews are on line but I have to go out and will look later. How interesting that my group of university types did not take PC at his own valuation, so my remarks may have sounded mean-spirited by comparison.
            Interestingly, the senator married an old friend of mine who is a year or three older than he is. No further comment on that one.

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  6. […] mediation on grief which situates her characters in the wider world.  By contrast Helen Hodgman in Blue Skies (1976) is more domestic in her concerns, capturing the inertia of suburban life for women in the […]

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