In this generous and respectful fictionalisation of Langley’s life, there’s a boy who lives near Ava who taunts her each time he sees her. He calls her a nut case. That might also be the judgement of the Blue Mountains town where Ava lives in a hut on its outskirts, but author Mark O’Flynn contests that perspective with a portrait of a rich inner life, even if that life may have been compromised by the rudimentary and sometimes disastrous mental health services of the twentieth century.
The real Eve Langley was a significant Australian novelist and poet but little is known about her. She was born into poverty but used her experiences as an itinerant agricultural labourer as material for her most famous novel The Pea Pickers (1942). Today she might be a member of the LGBTI community, but in the twentieth century her cross-dressing and what may have been intersex confusion was interpreted differently : during her sojourn in New Zealand she married and had three children, but she spent seven years in a mental health institution there. Did Langley’s husband use her gender identity issues to commit her, or was it because of the conflict between her passion for writing and the domestic demands of being a twentieth century wife and mother?
O’Flynn has created his story with narration from an elderly Ava’s point-of-view. This moves between reportage of events, Ava’s sometimes muddled interpretation of the interactions she has, and her restless imagination using events, interactions and memories to conjure new characters and situations for her next novel. In this way the reader is offered multiple perspectives from the people Ava meets in what might have been her last day, which is divided into Morning, Elevenses, Afternoon, Evening and Night. Binding her day together is her sense of herself as a writer, compelled to write, to compose new stories, and to track the progress of the latest MS sent to her publisher, even though it has been a very long time since they’ve accepted anything.
In the post office to send off her latest MS to Angus & Robertson, she meets an exasperated postmaster. Their exchange begins with his fruitless demand that she not bring her machete into the post office and then he has to check for her mail under two names.
‘Nothing today,’ he says.
‘No? That’s a disappointment. I was expecting something from my publisher. Angus & Robertson, perhaps you’ve heard of them? A missive.’
‘Really?’ says the impudent fellow.
‘Yes, really. Would you mind terribly checking under my other name? That is if you’re not too predetermined.’
‘Eh? I can check, I suppose. What’s the name again?’
‘Wilde. Oscar Wilde.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ says the fellow, his eyebrows raised to the heavens like a couple of leeches smelling blood in the vicinity. It is the usual reaction. People never believe her when she utters the truth, which is why she is prepared like a good girl guide. Ava takes from her bag the official deed poll certificate of name change which the department of changing names has sent her. What is that department called again? Yes, that’s it, the Department of Nomenclature. She carries it for identification, not just for proof of existence. (p.41-2)
What the ‘fellow’ does not realise, is that Ava has cast him in her imagination as Mr Menthol, on account of his fragrance:
Originally from Randwick – Ava imagines reading between the lines – he has just come from his modest little home, where he has tied his daughter to her bed until the unwed pregnancy, or other domestic catastrophe, is resolved one way or the other. A scene ripe for unlikely intervention and rescue involving a ladder and her machete. She could follow him home. She could save the day. At least that’s what takes place inside Ava’s helmet. Is it a vision or is it a plot? No, she has to learn to be more realistic. She could conjure a scenario where Mr Menthol lives alone and loves his garden more than the sum total of all humanity. His freesias especially. (p.39)
On this same day Officer Fowler has tackled her about this knife too. Despite her manly attire (trousers, cravat, pith helmet and machete) he addresses her as ‘madam’. From this otherwise comical exchange, the reader learns a poignant truth about how she has lost touch with her children:
The badge on his lapel says Officer Fowler. He’s young enough to be her grandson. Does she have a grandson? That’s another thing she doesn’t know.
‘Officer, what a pleasure, what an absolute delight. How can I be of assistance?’
A part of her seems to remember him from somewhere. She holds out her hand and the policeman shakes it. Ava’s handshake is of the manly variety, solid and muscular, as if she’s pumping a cow’s teat. Bone crunching, if only she could crunch bones. What a skill that would be.
‘There’s been a complaint,’ says the policeman. Where has she seen him before?
‘I should hope so. The service in this establishment – jerking her thumb over her shoulder – ‘is certainly lacking in enthusiasm.’
‘I mean a complaint about you.’
‘Pray, do tell.’
‘A lady in Hinkler Park has said you were waving a knife around.’
‘You frightened her child.’
‘First a lady, now a child. How the world doth multiply. What knife?’ (p.77-78)
And so on. Ava is quite right, they do have history: Officer Fowler had to arrest her when she used the knife to attack a best-seller in the library. (She’s probably not the only author that would like to sweep popular rivals from the shelves).
The Last Days of Ava Langdon is a playful yet poignant portrait of a life in extremis. It reminded me of the elderly heroes of Rodney Hall’s Love Without Hope and Matthew Condon’s The Trout Opera. But it was the chapter titled ‘Afternoon’ that won my heart: I’m not going to say a word about it because I want everyone who reads this book to have the same surprise, delight and then unwelcome doubt. Did it really happen, or was it a delusion?
Don’t miss this one, it really is a very special book.
Author: Mark O’Flynn
Title: The Last Days of Ava Langdon
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016
Review copy courtesy of UQP.