It feels a bit as if I am late to the party in reviewing Emma Ashmere’s The Floating Garden because it was reviewed on release in 2015 by Sue at Whispering Gums and by Jessica White on her blog – but in fact I was very quick to buy a copy after I read about it first at Marilyn Brady’s Me, You and Books. It was partly that I was captivated by the cover art: it’s Dorrit Black’s ‘The Bridge’ (1930) which so brilliantly captures the subject matter of the novel: the irony of a bridge being built to unite two sides of a harbour while fracturing the lives of the communities displaced by the construction works.
What prompted me to read The Floating Garden now was the novel’s shortlisting for the MUBA (Most Under-rated Book Award). How has this happened?, I wondered, because I knew from the enthusiastic reviews that this is a highly intelligent book that people will love. It is beautifully written, it’s a perceptive character-driven novel, and it’s about an intriguing aspect of our national icon’s history.
Anyway, I’ve just spent two happy days savouring Emma Ashmere’s The Floating Garden and I loved reading it. It took no time at all for me to become invested in the leading character Ellis Gilbey, impecunious landlady of a crumbling terrace in Milson’s Point and anonymous author of a popular gardening column in a newspaper. Her house is literally crumbling: with each demolition explosion, more of the plaster falls and the shape of the house alters. Like other residents of this poor but close-knit community, Ellis is supposed to have moved out, but there’s a struggle for fair compensation, and Ellis can’t bring herself to start looking for somewhere new, especially not with her pitiful savings.
It’s not just that Ellis is a writer and like all writers she needs the right sort of place to write. She has ‘baggage’, and as the back story gradually unfolds in chapters between the main narrative we learn about her awful family life on a dying farm, about her hapless involvement in a dubious cult of Theophists, and about her love for Kitty, which has left her emotionally bereft into middle age.
On the night of a storm that paralyses the night, the artist Rennie leaves her rich, abusive husband and splashes into Ellis’s life. A lesser novelist would do the predictable thing with this, but no, Ellis remains aloof, reclusive and uncommunicative, which baffles Rennie who – despite her difficult circumstances – is by nature a cheerful optimist. She is also naïve, holding out her bowl for second helpings of a soup that Ellis has watered down to make enough for two. Rennie takes no time to lose her money to pickpockets at the market, and in her haste to reinvent herself falls victim to dreams of a rural idyll when really, she’s a party animal who loves the raffish lifestyle of an artistic community.
She had to look. Either that or she would end up withering away, a perfect nobody, in the Australian bush.
She counted to three, took off her hat, patted her hair, and before her nerve deserted her, marched out from the trees and ran out the front steps. She lifted the heavy brass knocker and let it drop. As she waited, she peered inside the wide front windows at the large room dotted with cushions in magenta and gold satins and silks. The walls were covered in large abstract paintings and offset by floor mats in the Cubist design which had been so popular in London before she’d left.
Nobody answered. She made her way around the side of the house, through a pretty English walled garden with fronds of honeysuckle and pink and red roses perfuming the breeze, and into a tunnel of wispy trees. She hadn’t felt so excited since – oh, what did it matter now? She’d discovered something wild and exotic all by herself. She raked her fingers across the surface of a small pond where the mouths of goldfish could be seen nibbling clouds, and peered into another window. She gasped at the sight of a grand piano. (p. 216)
As Jessica White says in her review, The Floating Garden
focuses not on the arches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but what happens at its feet.
The realisation in prose of 1920s Sydney is as unforgettable as the characters. I loved the vivid descriptions of the market and the ferries; the sights and scents of lush plant life; the mud, slush and sordid decay of the houses; the sun-drenched views of the sea and the sky; the shadowy dangers that lurk in the cramped dark streets and the temptation of oblivion in the deep waters of the harbour. Without idealising poverty, Ashmere depicts this Sydney as a place for the marginalised and eccentric, a place where Girl can wear her outrageous outfits and Alf can quote Shakespeare. Maybe not a safe place, and definitely a place that is doomed to be destroyed, but a vision of what could be if people were more open and tolerant. Every time Ashmere mentioned Girl’s cheeky pink feathers, I thought of Sydney’s Mardi Gras and what a force for change that has turned out to be.
PS Charlotte at Book log for Charlotte loved it too.
Author: Emma Ashmere
Title: The Floating Garden
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2015
Source: personal library, bought from the publisher’s website $26.95 (where if you are impatient you can do an instant download)
Available from Fishpond: The Floating Garden