Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2014

One of the Wattle Birds (1994), by Jessica Anderson

1979314Thanks to the generosity of Sue from Whispering Gums who reviewed One of the Wattle Birds earlier this year, I’ve also been able to enjoy reading this last novel from one of Australia’s greats, Jessica Anderson (1916-2010).   As Sue says, it’s a deceptive book, initially giving the impression that it’s a coming-of-age novel.  Cecily Ambruss is seeking answers about her dead mother’s behaviour, and like a wattle bird, she’s making a lot of noise while she’s pecking away not getting anywhere.  Like her live-in lover Wil, she’s supposed to be studying for her exams, but unlike him, she’s focussed on something else, her quest to unravel the reasons for the hurtful decisions that were made while she was overseas with her friends.

As Cecily hassles various friends and relations about her mother’s inexplicable actions, the reader learns that Cecily’s mother Chris had denied Cecily the chance to say a last farewell because she refused to let anyone contact Cecily about her impending death.   Not only that, but Chris, a single mother herself, had stipulated in her will that Cecily was not to inherit until she was married.  There’s not a lot to inherit, so it’s not the money or the possibilities it might offer, it’s the implication that Chris regretted her unmarried status.

But Uncle Nick said, rather pained, that the double block of land made it an attractive property, and that if he managed the sale well, which he flattered himself he would do, it would be a nice little sum.

‘Enough to give a YOUNG COUPLE A GOOD START,’ said Aunt Gail.

But I asked why they kept on about nice little sums and young couples when oh, all that was beside the point, when oh, it was as clear as anything that by putting that in, she was saying she regretted it. ‘There,’ I said, ‘that’s the point.’

I didn’t mean that she regretted having me, exactly, but that she regretted becoming one of the first frankly single mothers, which people were not very relaxed about nineteen years ago.  But Aunt Gail misunderstood me, and leaned forward and said, ‘Cecily dear, NOBODY EVER REGRETS having a baby.  EVER.’

And before I can get closer to what I mean, she looks right into my eyes and says, from about five centimetres away, ‘You are speaking of a BIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY.’ (p. 19)

(And in this excerpt you can see only too clearly, the formatting flaw used for the character of Aunt Gail which irritated me.  That profusion of capital letters is meant to show that she’s a dominant personality with an bombastic manner of speaking, but it’s tiresome.  (And these days too, a breach of Netiquette, for which I apologise.  I am not shouting at you, the text is *sigh*)

I was about half way through the book, thinking that its preoccupations made it a novel ideal for the Young Adult market, when I was suddenly taken aback by a conversation between Cecily and her grandmother in England.  Confessing that she had send her sons to expensive schools for their snob value, Gran talks about the way the boys were bullied because of their Italian background, and that it was a racist old place in those days, your wonderful Australia.  To my astonishment Cecily’s response is to try to justify this racism in her own mind, thinking rebelliously that racism is a relic of our descent from the tribally aggressive chimpanzee.  And when Gran goes on to say that she thinks that things won’t have changed that much for Cecily’s cousin Eugene when he marries a Chinese girl, Cecily isn’t appalled by Gran’s predictions but by the way her own lie has gone viral (though that’s not a word that was in use back when Anderson wrote this book in 1994).

It was the middle of the night, but I went back to the beginning of the book and read more carefully.  There are three kinds of discrimination tackled in this book: illegitimacy and whether it was really accepted or not; racism in a so-called multicultural society; and homosexuality, which Uncle Nick would have difficulty accepting for his only son.  Cecily’s invention of a Chinese girl as a fiancé for Cousin Eugene brings these prejudices into sharp relief: Eugene’s parents suspect that he is gay and Uncle Nick’s relief that he’s not is what makes him willing to accept a mixed-race marriage.   Anderson’s irony, of course, is that Uncle Nick and Aunt Gail have concealed their own Italian heritage by dropping the ‘i’ from their surname, but their twin daughters are going to reinstate it when they’re old enough.

As Sue points out in her review, the power of money is also an issue.  One of the things Cecily likes about the twins is that their teeth are a bit ‘buck’ like hers are.  The girls will have theirs straightened of course, whereas Cecily evidently didn’t.   Her grandfather, a migrant made wealthy in the fruit-and-veg business, never forgave Chris for becoming an unmarried mother, and Cecily gets a taste of that outrage when she visits her Italian relations in Lucca.  While grandfather willed Chris half the house she lives in, he insisted that she pay rent for it and never assisted financially.  His wife, Gran, didn’t approve of that kind of Old Testament punishment, but she had no power to do anything about it while he was alive.

Well, as it turns out, Grandfather isn’t the only one who acts in a high-handed way.  Cecily is equally dogmatic in some ways, revealed by her unwillingness to test her own literary theories about Malory’s characterisation of King Arthur while on study-vac, and more importantly, by her refusal to listen to people who knew her mother and understood the reasons for her actions.  The plot takes a surprising and satisfying twist at the end when the one person Cecily refused to interrogate turns out to have the answers she was looking for.

I haven’t read enough of Anderson’s oeuvre to know if this novel is her best, but I certainly agree with Sue that it’s a fitting conclusion to Anderson’s literary life.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Jessica Anderson
Title: One of the Wattle Birds
Publisher: Penguin, 1994
ISBN: 9780140240320
Source: On loan from Sue at Whispering Gums


Fishpond: One of the Wattle Birds


  1. Great review Lisa … I love the fact that you brought out some different issues/perspectives to the ones I did. The book covers quite a lot for its rather slim size. I think one of the reasons I took so long to read it was because its opening (like the first couple of pages) seemed so, well, ordinary – but when I actually started reading it properly, there was so much more.

    I didn’t mind the textual technique for Aunt Gail. It gave a rhythm to her voice that I could just hear.


    • It’s extraordinary: there are so many issues raised by this book, I reckon it’s the kind of novel I would have written a 3000 word essay on when I was at uni! I am so grateful to you for lending it to me:)


      • LOL Lisa, I know what you mean. It’s hard to write a review of around 1000 or so words of a book you feel that way about, isn’t it!


        • That’s right. You can’t cover everything, and anyway you shouldn’t because people want to make their own discoveries about a book. That’s why I have a journal too, because sometimes (as in this case) there are other things you want to remember about a book that aren’t in the review.
          (Sometimes, *smacks forehead* I forget to jot down the plot resolution because I journal as I go but once I get to the end of the book I move onto the next one.)


          • LOL, I couldn’t manage writing in a journal as well BUT *slaps wrist* I do write in my books … As you probably noticed. Often just plot points, or noting nice descriptions, or guessing what’s happening. I don’t usually make judgements in the books … At the back I will sometimes note themes, style points etc some of which I’ll use in my review.


            • I love hearing about the different ways people do things:)

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Lucky for me, I already have a copy of this. It sounds like quite a complex, subtle novel with all of its themes. I like the mention of the will. Wills can be such painful or telling things as they leave the wishes of the dead that were either unspoken or invisible during life.
    Anyway, I’ll have to get to this. I read the author’s Tirra Lirra by the River which made my best-of-list for that year.


    • Agree 100% Guy. People can cause a lot of pain when they write wills, wanting to control the lives of others or inflict payback from beyond the grave.


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