Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2019

Field of Poppies, by Carmel Bird

I was really looking forward to reading Carmel Bird’s latest novel, and I am pleased to say that it does not disappoint!

The voice in this latest novel from one of our best-loved writers is just like one of my dearest friends.  Chatty, discursive, and intelligent; knowledgeable about the history of the world and sensitive to its contemporary woes; warm, witty and kind.  But reading Field of Poppies is not just like a long, leisurely intimate conversation with someone whose wisdom I treasure, it’s also a perfect expression of the zeitgeist.  (And if you want any confirmation of that, check out Australia Talks at ABC Online, to see the issues that are bothering other Australians).

The narrator is Marsali Swift, an older woman who is an irrepressible optimist reluctantly coming to terms with unpleasant truths.  The 20th century was a dreadful century, but the 21st may even be worse.  And there is no hiding from it.  Marsali, a retired interior designer, and her husband William, still working part-time as a doctor, made a tree-change to the (fictional) town of Muckleton in Victoria’s goldfields region, but the world found them there anyway.

Eureka Tower (Wikipedia)

Two events, she tells us right at the beginning, have propelled them back to urban life in the Eureka Tower in Melbourne.  Their Muckleton house was robbed while they were on a jaunt to hear La Traviata at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, and a woman called Alice Dooley has vanished.  As it happens, most of their eccentric possessions were recovered from the robbery, but Marsali still feels that her rural idyll has been violated.  Her sense of security is shattered, partly because she has to face up to the fact that her sense of community is a myth. Robbery isn’t just something that happens in the city, and what makes it worse is that in the countryside, it’s committed by people that you know.

And while Alice was only an acquaintance, an eccentric divorcée who lived alone in the former matrimonial home and played a very valuable violin in a community musical group, Marsali feels her disappearance keenly. It is a sign that evil has come to Muckleton which in their retirement was meant to be a refuge from the meanness of city life.  Marsali (though she’s not religious) suggests a prayer vigil, and the community organises it, but Alice’s disappearance remains an open wound.

Though of course the rest of the world has moved on.  Alice’s Ex, Eamon takes over the house and begins renovations.  [Remember Jon McGregor’s achingly sad Reservoir 13, about how the world moves on after a tragic unexplained disappearance?]

Marsali’s one consolation is her book-group.  It’s called Mirrabooka (!) and not only has Marsali has been with it for ages, she still drives up to Muckleton for its gatherings.  Like most women her age, Marsali has a strong bond with her female friends and their shared experiences mean a lot to her.  They read serious books, (with intentions to read Proust one day), but since the disappearance of Alice, their choices always seem to come round to stories of vanished women as in Picnic at Hanging Rock and Alice in Wonderland.  Their conversations often return to Alice Dooley and her disappearance; through gossip Marsali learns that blood and hair were found on Alice’s fridge handle.  Now in her vivid imagination she keeps seeing Alice with a head wound.

There are three parts to the novel: The Robbery, The Disappearance, and The Mine, which changes life for everyone in Muckleton.

What William and I quickly came to realise was that the road would also cut right across the back boundary of our property at Listowel.  Not exactly on our land, but along the lower edge of it, so that there would never be any peace again.  Not ever.  There would be constant traffic to and from the Soo.  It takes unimaginable energy and wild commotion to destroy forests.  Noise carried fast and far out there.  It jolted and bothered and rattled the windowpanes.  It rattled us.  Seven years of blissful musical peace and harmony and silvery silence, and then first the groans and roars of the making of the road, to be followed by the constant grinding of the traffic.  Back and forth. Day and Night.  The secrets of midnight penetrated by the blinding searchlights of the trucks.  Not to mention the dust.  We hadn’t thought about the dust that would forever fly towards us on the wind, would settle all across the garden, all over everything and right into the house itself. Dust all over everything.  It was fine and gritty and somehow sinister.  I often remembered the asbestos flakes falling like snow on the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz. That was the dust that woke up Dorothy and her friends; this was the dust that had awakened us.  One day I had a kind of vision of the garden all coated and choking in pale yellow dust, and I suddenly found myself sitting alone under the chestnut tree weeping tears of despair, looking up at Listowel in great sadness. (p.159)

[This is exactly how I feel about the people behind us building a double-storey monstrosity of concrete that blocks the sunrise that we used to see through our French windows.  Something that we loved has been taken from us, and it’s gone forever.]

Yet even as Marsali mourns the loss of her rural idyll, she is conscious of perspective and privilege:

When you put this abandonment of our soft velvet existence, with its poppy field and its lovely fossils in the very stones of the house, up against the lives of starving people driven from their homes by war and famine, our journey from Muckleton to Melbourne begins to look absurd and trivial. (p.161)

That’s it, isn’t it? We feel we ought not to complain, but still…

A word about the book.  Bucking the trend to near-universal publication in paperback, Transit Lounge is producing some of its new titles in beautiful hardback copies.  Alec Patric’s The Butcherbird Stories was in hardback, (see my review); so is another new release called The Sea and Us (on my TBR) from Stella short-listee Catherine de Saint-Phalle; and so is Field of Poppies. It has buttercup yellow boards, burgundy endpapers with a design reminiscent of Victorian wallpaper and a reproduction of Monet’s Field of Poppies (as referenced in the novel), and a lush dustjacket as you can see above. At $29.99 RRP, this hardback edition isn’t any more expensive than the retail price of most of the paperbacks we see. And it is just perfect for this extravagantly textured novel, gently satirising the way we focus on ourselves and our own lives while everything is falling apart and the planet is in deep trouble.

Image credit:

Author: Carmel Bird
Title:Field of Poppies
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925760392
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond (from November 1st): Field of Poppies and direct from Transit Lounge (where there are also reading group notes) and good bookshops everywhere.


Responses

  1. It would be nice to give a credit for the book and cover designer(s), since you liked it so much.

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    • Well, the images are just stock images from Trevillion, and the cover design is by Sandy Cull/gogo Gingko, but the credits don’t say who did the bits that are special, i.e. the book as a package, and who dsigned the endpapers and chose the colour of the boards.

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  2. This would resonate with me too right now since our village is fighting a proposal to build a business park on our fringe, destroying farmland and a valuable greenbelt. Yes we need jobs but when there is so much brownfield land that could be used, this has really upset us all.

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    • This sounds like a perennial fight that we have: through Melbourne there is what is called The Green Wedge, which traverses the city with a mixture of private and public bush and parkland and remnant farmland— to form a legislated corridor for flora and fauna. It is the green lungs of the city. Our bit of it is former farmland which used to be market gardens and now mostly used for growing flowers and it is owned by people who bought it to subdivide and use the proceeds for their retirement. They want to sell it for its potential value after subdivision, the council and state government want to buy it for its existing value. And every time this issue resurfaces we have to deal with it because it has a value more important than any money.

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      • Oh boy that sounds like a real fight. What do the government bodies want to do with it? I assume the plans are not to keep it as market garden/natural land – too valuable as retail units probably

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        • Exactly. Melbourne’s problem (and the problem with an economy based on eternal growth anywhere) is that you have to expand the number of places for people to live. Melbourne has always spread itself horizontally, so that now it is 80km from west to east, with most of it on quarter acre blocks (like mine) with single storey houses and good-sized gardens Government has realised quite rightly that this can’t go on, so they are encouraging/imposing vertical development in town houses and apartment blocks. This is why this undeveloped land is potentially so valuable.
          But as far as the Green Wedge is concerned, government wants to keep it. They’re not stupid, they know how important it is to clean air in the city. They want to buy it to protect it. But they are not in a position to pay what the owners think it is worth. So the issue festers on.

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  3. I have been waiting to hear thoughts on Carmel Bird’s latest. It sounds even better than anticipated. And very deserved, I would say, of the hard-cover/end paper treatment. Sigh!

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    • Hi Karenlee, I haven’t read all of Carmel’s other books so I should hesitate to say this, but I think it’s her best-ever.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Lisa, Thank you for your most generous and insightful review. It was a surprise and a great thrill to see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Carmel, for writing a lovely thought-provoking book!

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  5. On my list! I am a big fan of Carmel Bird – especially because she was born in Launceston ;-)

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    • LOL I will make sure that I categorise her properly as a Tassie author!

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      • This month I have an essay in Island Magazine – kind of explaining that my imaginative world was formed in Tasmania.

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        • It’s really sad that the funding for Island is about to dry up…

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