Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2018

A Hundred Small Lessons, by Ashley Hay #BookReview

I’ve never wanted to live in a brand new house: I like the idea of a house that has a past.

My own house has a wonderful story. It was built in the immediate post war period in what was then a new development (though there had been a village here since 1852). Because of the shortage of men and materials during the building boom, there were restrictions on the size and number of rooms new houses could have. The young couple who bought the block managed to find a tradie to put up the frame, but he shot through so they ended up building it themselves. Every day after work, for months, they took the train to Moorabbin Station where there was a timber yard, and rode their bicycles for a couple of miles down what was then the Point Nepean Road – balancing three long weatherboards between them. When they got here, she held the lantern while he climbed the ladder to nail the weatherboards in place, and then they went home, to do it again the next day. I know this inspiring story of grit and initiative because we met this couple when I hosted an afternoon tea for one of our elderly neighbours and she asked if she could invite them, because they’d been young parents together in the avenue. Although they loved how we had renovated their house, and were very pleased that there was a happy family living in it, the husband was embarrassed that the floorboards in our newly renovated kitchen were on show – we think those polished floorboards are beautiful, but he’d covered them up with lino: because of the timber shortages, not all the timbers are the same!

Still, despite my affection for stories like this, I might not have bought A Hundred Small Lessons on the basis of its blurb:

When Elsie Gormley leaves the Brisbane house in which she has lived for more than sixty years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to establish their new life. As they settle in, Lucy and her husband Ben struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents, taking comfort in memories of their vibrant past as they begin to unearth who their future selves might be. But the house has secrets of its own, and the rooms seem to share recollections of Elsie’s life with Lucy.

In her nearby nursing home, Elsie traces the span of her life—the moments she can’t bear to let go and the places to which she dreams of returning. Her beloved former house is at the heart of her memories of marriage, motherhood, love, and death, and the boundary between present and past becomes increasingly porous for both her and Lucy.

Over the course of one hot Brisbane summer, two families’ stories intersect in sudden and unexpected ways. Through the richly intertwined narratives of two ordinary, extraordinary women, Ashley Hay weaves an intricate, bighearted story of what it is to be human.

Yes, it sounds a bit twee. But Ashley Hay is the author of The Body in the Clouds and The Railwayman’s Wife and so I knew this novel was in good hands.

Lucy and Ben’s marriage seems like a typical modern marriage, both of them adjusting to the tests of new parenthood.  But Lucy, marooned in a new city where she has no support network – and without the necessary initiative to form one – soon becomes quite neurotic about safety and security.  She is a catastrophist who can’t enjoy a bit of peace while her husband takes the kid for a walk in the pram:

Another thing she hadn’t understood all the years before Tom came along: motherhood’s terror—extremity, catastrophe, terror.  The crazy swing from love to dread that could disrupt the most nondescript day.  No mother she’d known had talked of it: not her sisters, nor her mother, not the friends she’d left behind in every place they’d lived.

[Which might be because some of us never fell captive to it!  My mother was a catastrophist, so I know how exasperating it is for the child.]

There were so many things to worry about—Tom himself, and the spiders in the garden; the planet; and everything in between.  She couldn’t bear to watch the news.  Some twins, she’d heard the edge of a report just this morning, had been starved to death by their own mother in this very city.  She’d broken a plate in her hurry to switch off the radio.

Now, she scooped her phone off the counter.  Ben was ringing to tell her something dreadful. Something had happened.  By the river. Something had happened to Tom. (pp. 34-35)

So when odd things happen, like the disappearance of Lucy’s phone from her kitchen, overnight footmarks in the wet lawn and unexplained noises at night, the reader (like the bemused husband) is never quite sure whether Lucy is just being melodramatic or these oddities have really happened.

I really like the way Elsie’s story is told with affection and respect.  Elsie lived in the house with her husband Clem and her twins Elaine and Donald but after many years of widowhood she has a fall.  Her children, now in their seventies, place her in care and sell her house, but she has lapses of memory and often lives in the past.  Nevertheless, she is a fully-realised character, and her surprisingly coherent memories reveal unexpected adventures.  This is my favourite image of Elsie:

In the bathroom she stood splashing water onto her face—she must have splashed through a riverload of water in her years in this city, keeping herself cool through Brisbane’s summers.  Now, she knew, another summer was on its way.  Elsie loved the way the heat pressed against every plane of her skin.

She sized up the image in the mirror.  Age seems to have come on so quickly.  ‘I have no idea who you are or why you’re here,’ she said clearly, and she took a mouthful of water and sloshed it around, then spat it onto the troubling reflection. (p.25)

As with Lucy’s anxieties, the reader is never quite sure whether Elsie’s ventures outside her new apartment really take place.   But through her memories the reader sees a different kind of marriage—not idealised, because the lives of women were so circumscribed in that era, and her own daughter Elaine finds that frustrating—but the relationship between long-dead Clem and Elsie is an homage to contentment with what you have and a rock-solid marriage that never faltered. It reminded me in a way of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, though that tribute to the people of a different period and the values that they had is more nostalgic.

The writing is exquisite: it’s a love song to the river that threads through Brisbane, a city which I have never really explored. But it also shows the disorientating effects of having lived in places where the coast is in the wrong place and the stars are different.

The topography of this place still amazed her, the way it rose and fell so abruptly.  Lucy had walked for hours, intrigued by its constant crescendos and falls.  She’d walked pathways and roadways that cupped the edge of the river and she’d pushed the pram around their curves, trying to decipher its calligraphy and understand its ever-changing direction.  Where she grew up, north of Sydney, the coast ran obediently north to south; you stood on its shore and looked directly east, out across the ocean.  You knew where you were.  Her sisters still lived on that coastline, suspicious of any place that had a river, not a beach.  In their new house—Elsie’s house—the back door faced almost due east and Lucy loved that.  One sure point in a floating world.

Here were rises and ridges, dips and hollows, climbs so steep that stairways had been cut into hills and seemed to push straight to the sky.  There were crests and corners that seemed sometimes to consume sound and sometimes to amplify it—the river could pass the CityCat’s siren along to her house, although she was well away from it, upstream. (p.127)

A Hundred Small Lessons is a quiet book, but a welcome departure from the endless succession of novels about dysfunctional relationships.

Theresa reviewed it too, at Theresa Smith Writes.

Author: Ashley Hay
Title: A Hundred Small Lessons
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017, 366 pages
ISBN: 9781760293208
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

Available from Fishpond:A Hundred Small Lessons


Responses

  1. I finished this book just last week and really enjoyed it, especially Hay’s attention to physical details and the way she painted characters. The book was not plot driven but had a quiet, tender quality which I liked.

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    • Yes, and (as you can tell) I was especially touched by the portrayal of Elsie. I am more attuned than I was to the issues of old age, and my experience with my father taught me that dementia does not mean that the person ceases to be who they were. Elsie in this novel is still herself, even if she does talk to a husband who has been dead for many years.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s lovely, that you know your house’s history. It never really occurred to me to wonder who had been before me. My parents had one new house out of the nine we lived in, and I’ve had one too, quite late in life, though I only lived in it for a few years. I’m yet to meet a neighbour – I occasionally say hello – let alone a predecessor.

    Now, you have a break while I catch up on all those missed posts.

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    • LOL, you don’t want me to write any more, eh?
      All right, I’ll take the dog for a walk!

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      • That’s it, just a short break while I catch up.

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        • Ok, #laughing that’s half an hour gone by, I can get back to things now…

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  3. I really enjoyed this novel. I ended up going on about it quite a bit in my review, but there was just so much within it that touched me.

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    • *wags finger* And where is the link, so that I can link it into my review? I can’t search for it now, I am under orders to take the dog for a walk…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, I’m back now, and I’ve found it:)
        But *pout* I can’t comment on your post. I’m having trouble with WordPress not keeping me logged in, so most of the time I can’t ‘like’ posts and sometimes I can’t comment on them either. WP claim to be ‘looking into this’ but *hmpf* they’re obviously not in a rush.
        Anyway, I’ll comment here: you make a link with 6 degrees of separation, which was something I had overlooked. It reminded me of something that Rachel Kadish said at the MWJF: that just because it seems unlikely that something might happen, doesn’t mean it couldn’t or didn’t happen.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t want to come off as a spammer by just presenting the link straight up! My bookclub ended up reading this after I had and their opinions were mixed but none seemed to have liked it as much as me. It seems the quietness that appealed to me had the opposite effect for them. I defended the novel to the end!
        https://theresasmithwrites.com/2017/05/20/indepth-book-review-a-hundred-small-lessons-by-ashley-hay/

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        • You won’t come across as a spammer because everyone who reads this blog knows who you are (and you are an ‘approved’ commenter here). WP would automatically put the comment into moderation if you included two links, because I’ve set it to do that, but of course I would approve it straight away.
          I can see why the book wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It is a quiet book, and Hay doesn’t succumb to the current preoccupation with child and sexual abuse. Not a #MeToo moment to be seen, and even the marital conflict is muted. It sails close to the wind as a piece of UpLit (which many of us do not like at all) but IMO it is ultimately unsentimental.
          On another note: have you got yourself a copy of Kristina Olsson’s Shell? Kristina autographed mine when I went to hear her talk at Readings this week, and I am sure it is going to win the MF, it’s superb. Book of the Year superb. Book of the Decade superb. I finished it this morning and am dying to see other reviews. (I’ve read the ones in the paper, but there is so much more to it than they can convey in the space they’ve got!)

          Liked by 1 person

          • I haven’t got a copy of Shell yet. I read a few reviews this week when compiling the historical fiction round up for AWW. They weren’t positive reviews, but in saying that, what they didn’t like about it was overwhelmingly the ‘literary’ aspect and pacing, which is often, for me, what I like. It gives the reader time to dwell within the pages. Your post from yesterday (was it yesterday?) where you shared some reflections on it certainly got me interested. I’m definitely going to read it. I’m looking forward to your review.
            A Hundred Small Lessons is my only Hay read so far, but I picked up a copy of The Railwayman’s Wife last week as I really like her style and have of course heard so much about that novel.

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            • *sigh* Yes, it is unashamedly literary, but not just exquisitely written, there is something to think about on every page.
              Oh let’s hope there are no booksellers lusting for bestsellers on the MF jury this year, just people who love gorgeous writing and intelligent, questing books…

              Liked by 1 person

              • I’ll hope for that too! Now I just need to decide if I’ll order a hardcopy of Shell or settle for the ebook.

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                • It is a beautiful book in hardback…

                  Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Lisa, I was delighted to see that you had done a review of A Hundred Small Lessons. I had the wonderful opportunity of seeing Ashley talk about her book at the Brisbane Writers Festival just recently. I am embarrassed to admit that Ashley had not come across my radar before, but I was so impressed with the way that she spoke and her encouragement to pay attention to the little things in life that I went straight out and bought two of her books – A Hundred Small Lessons and The Railwayman’s Wife, both of which I am still to read. Your comment on the blurb is interesting, which in my edition is actually in the front of the book, not on the back. While the cover is nice, I probably wouldn’t have been prompted to pick it up, if I hadn’t seen her session at the festival. It’s amazing how much difference it can make seeing an author in the flesh and hearing them speak about their work. I’ve also noticed some reviews for Shell, that have got me interested.

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  5. Hello Karen, I think you are right about how hearing an author talk can sometimes override a lukewarm response to a cover or a blurb. I always feel very lucky when I get to go to author events because it really can enhance the reading of the book.
    Did she say if she was working on another one?

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  6. I like older homes too; I can’t imagine living in a new one (not that I would likely get the opportunity). I also really like the quote about washing a river’s worth of water over her face across the years. How relatable!

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    • There’s what they call urban renewal going on my suburb: ripping down old houses and building new ones. Some are quite nice, but a bit soulless, others are dead boring. But then, when I look at my house as it was in the 1950s, it hadn’t had time to develop a personality either. So perhaps the new ones here will settle in nicely too…

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  7. […] I am not the only one utterly captivated by Shell: it has had glowing reviews in the print media, and its impressive list of blurbers includes this comment from Ashley Hay, author of The Railwayman’s Wife and A Hundred Little Lessons: […]

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