Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 15, 2014

Taking Shelter, by Jessica Anderson

Taking Shelter

Jessica Anderson was, as Sue at Whispering Gums has noted, a ‘late bloomer’, and Taking Shelter published in 1989 when she was 73 is Anderson’s sixth novel of only seven.  Although the blurb on my Penguin edition calls it ‘a provocative blend of Jane Austen domesticity, Iris Murdoch androgyny, and Australian sensuality’, I found that it had a rather whimsical tone, generated mainly by the controlling figure of Juliet, ‘spare old godmother’ to Miles and ‘fairy godmother’ to those she loves.

Juliet is an interesting choice of name for a celibate, childless old woman orchestrating the lives of the tribe that surrounds her. Irrevocably associated with Shakespeare’s play, ‘Juliet’ has connotations of youthful, romantic, doomed love.  It seems a name better suited to Beth, the most interesting character in the book, the one engaged to Miles who turns out to be gay, and the one who has a grand, passionate love for Marcus – who might turn out to be feckless and irresponsible.  The one who might find that the choice she has reluctantly made is the wrong one…

Anderson made some other puzzling authorial choices.  I’m all in favour of novelists trying something different, and with Taking Shelter, Jessica Anderson has structured the narration so that part of the story is told through Juliet’s dream diary, and the rest (most of it) in straightforward third-person narrative with a great deal of dialogue.  I enjoyed the sharp wit of the narrative, but found myself irritated by the dream diary. It’s awkward, it’s inelegant.   I’m still trying to fathom why the author chose to do it this way.  Was she satirising Women’s Weekly/New Idea dreamology?

Juliet records each dream in a ledger, and then records her interpretation of it, identifying the origins of the dream in the debris of her daily life.  Here’s a sample from the beginning of the book:

DREAM 20 = Series of rooms. No colour.  With shadowy man again.  Suddenly no roof. Earth floor.  Earth floor, stone walls, no doors.  Me in that strawberry silk.  Man laughs.  Scorn.  Says, hem dips too.  I look down.  My feet bare covered thickly with black blisters even on insteps.  Heavy sadness.

There’s 16 more lines of this sort of thing and then we get:

ORIGINS DREAM 20 – The clearest proof yet of the debris theory.  No roof, earth floor etc. = Said to those young gardeners when they gave me their account.  Well, you two might be spiritual but it doesn’t stop you two charging the earth. They talked about usual rates, and one said, Look, you will live in that garden.  And I said, How fortunate, since people like you are taking the roof from over my head.  Strawberry dress = my first silk dress Daddy brought back from Paris.  But I didn’t hate it, I doted on it.  No.  Concentrate on yesterday.  Here we are= Strawberries Clem brought me, which I told him were unripe and perfectly insipid.  Showed him white area near stalk while he was telling me about Miles and Beth, saying not quite inseparable.  Black blisters = Markham brothers testing tv.  One clear image.  Doctor pointing to photograph, saying, This girl had smallpox.  Utter horror.  Couldn’t look. Clustered like black pearls. (p. 17)

I found these ledger entries tiresome, but I was fascinated by the narrative.  The story is set in the 1980s, when women were reinventing themselves, marriage roles were in a muddle, and AIDS was redefining the sexual revolution.  The sequence where Beth, considerably younger than Miles, challenges him at last about her doubts, is brilliant at depicting the power relations between the two and Beth’s refusal to be patronised out of demanding answers:

Taking Miles’s hands from her shoulders, stepping apart, she saw their faces politely waiting for her to explain.  ‘I must know – ‘ she said, angry at the tremor in her voice, her fear of crassness, she blurted out: ‘- if Miles is a homosexual.’

‘Goodness gracious me,’ whispered Juliet.  She broke into soft laughter and took a few long backward strides on the grass before turning to walk quickly to the house.  Miles, pouring mineral water into a glass, also laughed.

‘If the article is necessary at all, shouldn’t it be an?  You had better sit down and drink this, Beth.’

….

‘You mean,’ she said, insistent to halt her threatened slide into feebleness, ‘your sexual preference.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘since you force me to repeat it.   For men.  At this time of my life it is a preference, which doesn’t mean it will remain one.  It’s known to quite a number of decent and discreet people, including my parents, who have always been simply splendid about it.  As I took it for granted you would be too, Beth.  Took it for granted you were being.  I’m sorry.  It’s my fault.  Loving you so much I made you into something you were not.  I overestimated your empathy.  I knew you had some little -‘ He wiggled the fingers of one hand. ‘ – doubts.  But I didn’t dream you supposed me to be one hundred percent straight, or that we would ever have to be so solemn and earnest and explicit about it.’

‘So crass,’ said Beth.

‘It’s you who say so.’  He leaned across the table and took both her hands.  ‘Dearest, this needn’t affect our marriage.  You have proof of that.  Oh, look -‘ He broke off to laugh, to squeeze her hands ‘- I still can’t believe we’re sitting in Juliet’s garden gloomily discussing it.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ said Beth.

He looked at her with sympathy.  ‘I’m sorry you said that, Beth.’

‘Just tell me, with men, are you so celibate?’

So celibate? Can celibacy be qualified?’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘Oh that phrase! That cry of the slovenly!’  Smiling, he tightened his grip on the hands she tried to tug from his.  ‘ But yes, I do know what you mean.’

‘Well?’

‘Well, I don’t propose to marry a man, do I?’

‘Just tell me -‘

He abruptly released her hands.  ‘You do have a taste for these dreary discussions, don’t you?’

Beth’s face twisted out of control.  Her voice trembled.  ‘We’re not discussing anything.  We’re doing what we always do.  I’m asking questions, and you’re putting me off.’ (p. 31-32)

As this dialogue goes on, Miles using his wit to try to outsmart, embarrass and evade her, Beth finally succeeds in disarming him: his vulnerability is that at that time, in his social milieu in upper-class Sydney society, Miles’s career and prospects would be compromised if he did not maintain a veneer of married respectability, with children to pass on the family name.  And Beth, so lovely before, so gentle and clever and funny’  i.e. before she started asserting herself, is to be his ‘cover’, this veneer.

Well, AIDS, written then without capital letters, and in this author’s hands a frightening mysterious disease that justifies not visiting the afflicted, means that it is Miles’s dismissive attitude that is crass, not Beth’s anxiety.  And although there are elements of this preoccupation with AIDS that seem inappropriate now in the more enlightened 21st century, Anderson charts this abrupt halt to the ‘anything goes’ sexual revolution with great skill.

The whimsy comes from Juliet’s desire to make the dreams of others come true.  She has the time, the money, the opportunity and the perspicacity to be a problem solver for those she cares about.  She wants to be the fairy godmother who dreams impossible dreams into reality, and in this respect she is like many of us as we grow older and have a bit of time and money to spare.  But she’s not a benign force in every way because she is manipulative, patronising, and saddest of all because it’s so often true, she is most dreadfully racist, in a horridly casual way, to her housekeeper, Mrs Ho.

Taking Shelter is an intriguing novel, with much more to think about than I have outlined here.

Check out Angela Meyer’s review at Literary Minded too.

The intriguing cover illustration is by Mark Strathy.  It appears to have been commissioned for the book, because it represents a moment in the cloister of a Rome museum when, as a little girl, Beth meets Marcus beside the sculpture of a rhino with ivy growing through its mouth (p. 51-52).  I thought I’d visited every museum in Rome, but I don’t remember this one.

Author: Jessica Anderson
Title: Taking Shelter
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1990
ISBN: 9780140125931
Source: Personal library, an OpShop find for $1.00!

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Responses

  1. I didn’t know much about this one, Lisa. Interesting review. It will have to go on the never-ending list!

    • Hello Amanda:)
      It’s very hard to find these old titles. Text Classics has reissued The Commandant, so hopefully they have plans to reissue this one too.

      • One of the many reasons we love our libraries! Thanks for the review, Lisa :-)

  2. Love that description of Anderson likening her to Murdoch and Austen. I have her Wattle Birds novel next to my bed. It’s been there for longer than I’d like to admit. She’s such an interesting writer, isn’t she.

    • Yay, Sue, does ‘next to my bed’ mean you will get to it soon? Can I swap with you when you’ve read it?

      • I will try … and yes, but you’d better remind me if you haven’t seen it reviewed in the next few months as I’ve been trying to get to it for some time!

        • LOL I’ll send mine up to you and then you will feel guilty if you don’t do it.

  3. […] as I do like her. What finally prompted me to read this novel was Lisa Hill (ANZLitLovers) who recently reviewed Anderson’s penultimate novel, Taking shelter. She suggested that we swap books, when […]

  4. I’ve been meaning to get back to this author since I read Tirra Lirra By the River (nudged by Sue).

    • I’ve been neglecting her too, which I plan to redress.


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