If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember reading my review of Sally Van Gent’s first venture into publishing, Clay Gully, Stories from an Apple Orchard (2013) and the follow-up feature in my Meet an Aussie Author series. Sally’s life has been a most interesting one, and her latest book, The Navy-blue Suitcase, Curious Tales from a Travelling Life fills in her backstory prior to making a new life for herself as a would-be orchardist of heritage apples.
The suitcase is a double metaphor. It symbolises not only Sally’s twenty years of nomadic life but also the marriage of her parents. As a little girl living in Yorkshire with her mother, her grandparents, and a perennially absent father, Sally had been intensely curious about this suitcase hidden under the bed, and of course one day she sneaked a peek when her mother, who had very few possessions of her own, was out…
When I read Clay Gully, I was impressed by Sally’s optimism in the face of hardship, and it’s there again when, late in the book, she finds out the truth about her father. He’s a man who flits in and out of their lives from far away London, making promises he never keeps but maintaining control with daily phone calls. Even as Sally grows into adolescence her mother still doesn’t have a contact phone number or address for him. It’s not hard to guess what’s going on, but the tragedy of it is that her mother never faces up to it. When she finally has to get a home of her own, she foolishly believes his promises to pay her half of a shared house. She believes him when he says there’s a ‘small hitch’ and her friend uses her savings to make up the shortfall ‘for a week or two.’ From faraway Qatar, Sally is horrified:
There’s a moment’s silence, and then my mother says brightly, ‘I’m going to love living here and there’s absolutely nothing for you to worry about.’
But I do worry, and as it turns out, with good reason. After a few months, when my father’s money still hasn’t arrived, the house has to be sold and the two friends never speak again. (p. 78)
A man who would be so cruel to his wife is equally unkind to his daughter, but, without bitterness, Sally has the good sense to give up on him, as her mother should have done years ago. That’s my judgement from joining the dots: Sally never sits in judgement of either of them.
Sally has the most amazing life. With her first husband Nick, she lives in Qatar, Mauritius, back in England in the Lakes District, Kuwait, Athens and Singapore. She brings up two kids including one with a very serious birth abnormality. There are whimsical anecdotes about each place, illustrated by sketches of wildlife, landscapes urban and rural, the children at play, curios, and an astonishing variety of houses.
It’s in Singapore that her first marriage falls apart, but as with the failings of her parents there is no bitterness over that and no tell-all recriminations either. With her new husband she has just one stipulation, that he has to give up seafaring because she’s had enough of a peripatetic life. So they settle in Australia, though not without a few false starts.
My favourite of her light-hearted anecdotes concerns the burglary when they live in a secluded rural property near Bendigo, and the dour Aussie insurance assessor raises a quizzical eyebrow over the claims for some very expensive jewellery.
I’ve prepared a list of the missing items, at least the ones we’ve identified so far. It’s an odd mixture: the Malay knife that has gone from the wall in my husband’s office, his spare watch, an old camera. They’ve taken a four-pack of VB beer from the fridge and a bag of pens, Blu-tack and sticky tape that I bought for Nat, who’s about to go away to college. They’ve even taken the five and ten cent coins from his money-box.
And of course there’s my jewellery. I’ve made detailed drawings of each piece and I hand these to the assessor. He flicks through the pages and then looks around the room. I can tell he’s taking stock of the peeling yellow paint, the hideous brown-striped curtains and the awful shag-pile carpet that was full of cat fleas when we moved in.
When I catch his eye he looks away, but I can tell he is studying me too. He’s caught me at a bad moment. He arrived as I was digging holes in the front garden for the plants I brought with me from the other house, and I haven’t had time to wash. I’m wearing tattered jeans and a baggy old T-shirt that I bought in an op shop years ago.
He gets up to leave, but at the door he stops. ‘I’d like to remind you,’ he says severely, ‘that there are heavy penalties for giving a false declaration to an insurance company.’
Well, who would believe that she was given this jewellery as a (no-strings) gift from an Arabian sheik? But it’s true! (I can relate to this because until I show them a photo of me wearing it, no one believes in the existence of our family tiara, (bigger and better than the one Princess Di borrowed for that doomed wedding). Tiaras don’t have much use these days, so we don’t have it any more.)
I liked this book. Sometimes memoir can be rather wearying, especially in its therapeutic manifestations when the author has a lot of misery or self-justification to get off her chest. But The Navy-blue Suitcase is not like that. It has optimism, humour, an indefatigable faith in a better future, and a powerful sense that life is what you make of it, no matter what cards you’ve been dealt.
Author: Sally Van Gent
Title: The Navy-blue Suitcase, Curious Tales from a Travelling Life
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press
Available from Fishpond The Navy-Blue Suitcase: Curious Tales from a Travelling Life or direct from Wakefield Press.