Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2014

Personal Effects (2014), by Carmel Macdonald Grahame

Cover of Personal EffectsPersonal Effects, the debut novel of Carmel Macdonald Grahame, is a most accomplished book.  My initial reaction was delight because the writing was so exquisite and I was enchanted by the descriptions of place.  However it was not long before I was totally absorbed in the story and its characters, and identifying with the issues raised as well.

Lilith is an older woman from Western Australia faced with an unenviable choice: her husband’s work on the oil rigs in WA is drying up and they can’t afford to retire.  They have two options: Dubai or Calgary.  They have been to both places before in their itinerant life, but moving house across the world again is a daunting prospect.  For her, this lifestyle impacts profoundly on whether she can have a career or not, and therefore, also on her sense of identity:

No matter how easily I use it to name my relationship with Ross I have never been comfortable with the word wife to describe my occupation, but here we go again.  Little else feels familiar about being back in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Not for us a suburban vista this time.  Outside, the untidy three dimensions of the downtown core are being licked by snow.  A crane’s boom slides across the sky and disappears into the flurry.  A cityscape silently enveloped while I watch, and a delivery of beauty that depends on silence, is nothing like the windy storms I am used to, where noisy rain-dimpled ocean thrashes white sand.

Which could explain why snow seems to represent some quintessential otherness just now, has me feeling my strangerhood keenly and as if some kind of nomadism were always unfolding in me.  Cervantes.  Calgary.  Places on opposite sides of a world.  There can’t be many in whose lives they meet.  I feel like a stitch binding them together, a stitch in place. (p.3)

I too have experienced this tension between the male career and a woman’s identity.  We faced this dilemma before we were married when an ambitious politician chasing votes wanted to move The Spouse’s workplace to a country town. I had just reached the pinnacle of my career.  I loved my job, my house, my friends, my bookshops and libraries in Melbourne and not least my son, then at university in Melbourne.  Fortunately the ambitious politician was reined in by wiser colleagues and the news that the move was off was our best wedding present.  But I still think sometimes, how would our lives have unfolded under the pressure of a weekend marriage?

As the novel progresses, Lilith’s stitch begins to unravel and her life becomes a bleak picture of loneliness, unresolved grief and depression. But Personal Effects is not a dreary navel-gazer – I wouldn’t have kept reading it if it were.  The novel paints a convincing portrait of a courageous, resilient and loving woman who struggles with her demons, and emerges with her sense of self intact.


In the course of the story Lilith revisits memories of her life in coastal Cervantes, surely one of the most interesting places on the WA coast.  Gateway to the awe-inspiring Pinnacles, it was a sleepy fishing village when I was there in the 1980s.  But for Lilith, there are painful memories of family conflict meshed with her joy in the splendour of its natural beauty.  In her life, places are bound up with all kinds of memories, from her honeymoon on Rottnest Island, to discovering on Vancouver Island that her young daughters were growing up as hybrid beings with adventurer spirits, to losing a much wanted baby on a previous sojourn in Calgary.

An image slips into my mind from the hospital, when I had dropped my nightgown from my shoulders in front of a mirror and stood staring at my breasts, sore and so irrelevant that I was filled with a sense of my body’s uselessness, a kind of dread.  I felt I had been wounded at the core with a scar that would be invisible, wanted to tear at my skin until I reached the site, wanted to staunch my grief but at the same time for it never to stop; it was a spring inside me, the source of always being mindful of this child of mine, who had been taken from me.

Mine, mine, mine, I think now, with Ross’s book on my lap, the narcissism of my own grief striking me hard.  He was not my child. He was ours.  I have been hiding from Ross and he has been hiding from me. Something is sealed between us in that moment and I can’t imagine anything Ross could ever do to make me not love him. (p.175)

Mere pages later, in vivid memory, she is furious with him.  In a gift shop with her family, she wants to buy something for herself, and she is overwhelmed by the ignominy of having to ask Ross for money – because she doesn’t have any of her own.  Ross is bewildered – it’s never been an issue between them, but she is consumed by it.   ‘You even pay for your own gifts now!  I buy them on your Visa card. You get the bill!’ she shrieks at him, and it’s as if this author had been eavesdropping on my own long-ago life before I had my own career, my own money and my never-to-be-relinquished independence.

Returning to Calgary for Lilith is harder this time, because her daughters are grown and elsewhere, and her sense of self is shaky.  The author achieves this flakiness with her image of the woman in the mirror, who sometimes takes over in third-person narration, who admonishes Lilith, and tells her to be a better woman.  This is not so easy to do, as we see in a splendid scene where, alone in her apartment, she hurls crockery around the kitchen until she is surrounded by sparkling shards of brightly coloured china and her hands are bleeding.  Tellingly, she tidies up, she hides the pieces in a bag, and she makes up a nearly-convincing story to tell her husband about how she hurt herself.

pique assiette lazy susanThat act of hiding the evidence becomes the key to her recovery.  Lilith is an artist: she creates mosaics using broken pottery.  It’s a technique called pique assiette. (I have a pique assiette ‘lazy-Susan’ made from Tasmanian timber and broken pieces of Queen Mary Meakin china).  A sense of fulfilment does not have to come from paid employment, and sometimes mere doggedness is enough, or nearly enough:

Observing the icicles forming, as if by some strange process that was freezing tears, I begin to realise my capacity for joy has crept up on me while I have been putting one foot before the other and my heart has kept beating.  For a while there I was pressed down into the dark, but there is something about life itself that insists. It is a stately force. (p. 185)

Personal Effects is a thoughtful, wise exploration of the decisions that litter a long marriage: the achievements, the disillusionments, the heartache and the joys.  Highly recommended..

You can find out more about the author here, and there are book club notes here.

WA author Annabel Smith interviewed the author here and do read Amanda Curtin’s review at Looking Up, Looking Down too.

Author: Carmel Macdonald Grahame
Title: Personal Effects
Publisher: UWAP, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP.


Fishpond: Personal Effects
Or direct from UWAP.


  1. It sounds great- and I love the cover.


    • It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?
      But I think I’d find it hard to adjust to snow. I hated it when I was a kid in London.


  2. I hadn’t stopped by for a few days and in fact have a little pile of your posts and reviews to read. Another book is now added to the book list. I glanced over the spoiler alert, so thanks for that. So glad I have my book suggestion sheet open in OneNote and not a post it note. In my experience they are not big enough!

    Whilst moving from WA to Dubai or Calgary is an obvious ordeal I suspect that for different reasons other feel the pull of attachment to things -objects and places, not to mention people.


    • Hello, Julie, thank you for dropping by:)
      I think it is much harder to move as you get older. When the children are young you can make friends at their school and sporting clubs, but when you are older, you have to make the effort to get out and join things. Also, the friends that have been through our ups and downs with us are precious – and irreplaceable.
      I am intrigued about your use of One Note – I use it to keep track of the books I review for publishers, but I’ve never thought of using it for a wishlist. Do you use any particular template?


      • I would agree with you. With my Mum passing away I have had all her things to sort out. She kept the strangest and yet memorable things including a dreadful ornament I bought here when I was about six on a school trip. As I got off the coach I dropped it and it broke. Mum glued it gave me a hug and put it on her bedroom mantle piece. After at least 3 moves I found it wrapped and still glued. I bought it home, dusted it and put it on the mantle piece in my spare room.

        With having no children and having to sort Mum’s things I wonder what will happen when the time comes. But that is all about things and the memories attached to them.

        I am a bit of a home bird and if I don’t go out or talk to anyone I am fine with that, but I can understand that some people need that physical interaction with others. Of course the internet plays a huge part. We are about 10,000 miles apart and yet converse (and my reading list gets longer!)

        OneNote template. I don’t but I should. The list is long and unorganised. A note on my to do list is to set up a template. When I do I will share it with you. I also move that wishlist to LIbraryThing.


        • Well, Julie, I have been executor for two childless friends, and I can only reassure you that their things were sorted out with love and care, and the trinkets that I have kept in memory of these two ladies are treasured by me as much as any child might value them.
          My friend Sue had very little to leave anyone, but what she had she shared out amongst the most disadvantaged people she knew, 25 altogether. One received enough money to buy a decent mattress for a bad back, another got enough to buy a better quality wheelchair, another was given enough for physiotherapy for a year, and so on, each receiving just enough for a small much-needed miracle. Each one of those people will never forget her thoughtful kindness. A wonderful legacy, and she could not have changed these people’s lives if she’d had children expecting to inherit whatever she had.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I am sure that you did handle your friends affairs with lots of care and love. Your friend made wonderful legacies, which just shows that it is not the amount or the item, it is the memory or thought attached to them. In terms of my Mum I was overwhelmed with the thoughts of dealing with her things. Yet, in the last few weeks I have made a few decisions, and hopefully have done as Mum would have wanted. It is a tough place to be in addition to the emotional upheaval.

            As I look around the breakfast room, which is where I am now. I can see a tea set that was given to my Grandmother in 1939. I inherited it and when we moved here it was the first thing I displayed in the cabinet. Item with memory attached.

            We have on the window seal two glass oil lamps. They were given to us by my late father in law. They might have belonged to my husband’s paternal grandmother we don’t know and he does not feel any emotional attachment to them, whereas I do to the tea set.

            I recently read Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters – fabulous book and a review will be written shortly. On page 3 the character in the book writes “you can’t keep everything” and isn’t that the truth. You can simply select the items that mean the most.


            • One thing I’ve done, is to start a pretty little notebook listing the special bits and pieces that I have and why they have sentimental value to me. It’s not meant to be a ‘message from the grave’ but the process of writing it has been very satisfying.
              Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase sounds interesting, I look forward to your review:)


  3. Just thought I’d let you know that we have about eight inches of heavy spring snow in Calgary this morning — in May, for god’s sake.

    I am intrigued by the concept of this book, partly because Mrs. KfC and I moved back to Calgary after departing the workforce — although in our case, it was very much a return home. I think it is safe to say that the resource industries do move people around a fair bit. You get to see a lot of the world, but as the book (and your review) point out, it has a particularly high cost for the spouse who is not working in the resource industry.

    I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to get to it, but I’ll definitely add it to the pile.


    • Ah Kevin, did you know that Sue from Whispering Gums is in Toronto visiting her daughter? She wasn’t expecting it to be as cold as it is…

      I think that one of the things that made it harder for the character in this book was the work restrictions that applied to her, and I assume that they are based on real life. I believe that Australia has something similar too, protecting the local workforce, I suppose, but very hard on families in this situation, especially if the work is what we call FIFO (Fly in Fly Out), leaving the partner abandoned for weeks at a time. This author has done a really good job of showing us the impact that this lifestyle can have.

      She has also reinforced my impression of Canada as a beautiful destination to visit!


  4. I love how you let us see little snapshots of yourself sometimes Lisa, like you have in this review. There are often bits and pieces that resonate and I know it is highly satisfying for a writer to find ‘kindred spirits’ in the reviewing world.


    • There must be many, many women out there who are nodding in recognition at the situation this author has portrayed. The role of women has changed so much in my lifetime and yet there are still times when biology makes us dependant, when the male capacity for earning more makes his job more valued, and when we feel we ought to suppress our righteous indignation because to do otherwise is judged petty, by ourselves as well as by others. I think this book will strike a chord with many readers, male as well as female.


  5. Apologies for my recent absence from comments etc. Perhaps my new camera and related software is taking up a bit too much of my time. I will return when the novelty has passed!


    • Don’t you dare apologise, your photos are wonderful!


  6. I thought this book was beautiful Lisa, and very thought-provoking. I suffered from depression when I moved to London so it really resonated with me personally as well. Did you see my interview with Carmel?


    • Hi Annabelle, it’s great writing, I agree.
      I did do a search but didn’t find your interview, I’ll put the link into the post now so that people don’t miss it.


      • Thanks, that would be great.


  7. […] Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame (UWA Publishing, 2014) ISBN 978 1 74258 534 5 You can read an excellent review by Lisa Hill here. […]


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