Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 28, 2021

Murmurations, by Carol Lefevre

Murmurations came my way when it was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  It’s a delicate, melancholy collection of interlinked stories,—each of which could be read independently, but together they form a cohesive novella about a generation of women whose lives were constrained by the mores of the time and the isolation of urban life.  The unusual title refers to connections among the behaviour of starlings which persists no matter how large the group is, but it serves to draw attention to the ways in which urban life diminishes connections between people.  In these stories characters have only fleeting connections with each other—sometimes only gossip—and they do not support each other. They don’t seem to know how.

For me, it is the paintings which inspired the stories that are more significant.  In the author’s Acknowledgments at the back of the book, Lefevre says that these original prompts are not necessary, but a quick web search enhanced my appreciation of the deft characterisation and the landscaping of the stories.

Murmurations is not set in a specific city, or country, but in the daunting urban landscapes painted by the American artist Edward Hopper.  Noted for his reticence and habitual silence, Hopper’s flat, saturated colours, his erasing of detail, produced pictures in which absence is as compelling and eloquent as presence.  Each of these stories began as a response to one of Hopper’s paintings…

The first story, ‘After the Island’ features a doctor’s secretary called Emily, and is a response to Hopper’s 1927 painting, ‘Automat’.  This portrait of a woman alone sets the tone for the collection: her environment is bleak, and she is troubled.  It isn’t necessary to know this painting to read the story, but it’s easy to imagine Emily in this scene, mulling over her dilemma—her unwitting failure to respond to a cry for help.

Automat (1927), by Edward Hopper (*Wikipedia)

If you click through the links to view the paintings that inspired the stories, a pattern emerges.  There is tension between the characters, there is resignation and sadness, there is quiet desperation; and there is profound loneliness.

Erris Cleary, the doctor’s wife whose death troubles all the characters, haunts the collection.  Others who cross her path are not certain whether she was an alcoholic, a madwoman, an embarrassment to her husband or a victim of foul play.  Each of them fails to connect, not through malice, but through the exigencies of daily life.

The bleak landscapes seem malevolent:

She had hated this place from the start, hated its weather, and the way people talked, hated its ugly houses. and the shapes of the trees; she hated the way locals stuck together, the way they were always reminding you that you didn’t belong, that you would never be one of them, however long you stayed; she hated when they banged on about the natural beauty of the place when honestly it was bleak, and much of it rundown, and all of it desperately behind the times.  What she dreaded most, she’d said, was being stuck here until she was old, or dying and being buried here, trapped forever in its cold and hostile soil. (‘Evening All Afternoon’, p.39)

The saddest story is Jeanie’s.  She is homeless after her marriage failed, and it failed because she tried to make a life for herself instead of fulfilling the role her husband expected her to play.  He didn’t love her when he married her—he just thought she would make a good wife, and one day, he thoughtlessly tells her this, along with a very belated announcement that now, he thinks, he does love her.

Jeanie saw herself floating up the aisle, sacrificial under the mist of her veil.  As she had stood beside Rob at the altar she had felt as if the two of them were lifted up together into a high place, ‘a sacred mountain’, she had said to herself at the time.  Now she saw that she had been as alone on the mountain as under her veil, and she felt a vengeful desire to punish Rob. (‘The Lives We Lost’p.66)

But now it is she who is couch-surfing:

Once it becomes clear that you are not a guest but something less transitory, camping in someone else’s home is like the Chinese water torture.  Drip drip drip.  Jeanie and Sue have exhausted the conversations about places and people they knew as children. Drip drip drip.  Jeanie has emptied her sympathy over Sue’s acrimonious divorce, and the rejecting behaviour of her ungrateful children.  Sue has listened to Jeanie explain how a life that once seemed so solid has evaporated.

Neither cousin understands what the other is saying.  Though they speak the same language, words, sentences, turn opaque when they attempt to describe their lives.  (p.67)

This slide show below doesn’t name Hopper’s paintings, but it’s an impressive overview of a great American artist, and it suits the mood of the collection.

See also Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

You can find out more about Carol Lefevre at her website.

Image credits:

  • Automat: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9255012
    Wikipedia’s “Fair use rationale’ for Automat (painting): The image linked here is claimed to be used under fair use in Automat (painting) since:
    The artwork is only being used for informational purposes.
    The JPEG is of lower resolution than the original and copies made from it are of inferior quality
    Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because it shows the subject of the article
    This is a reproduction of an old piece of art.
  • The ’40 Most Famous Edward Hopper Paintings’ slideshow is from the Edward Hopper website.

Author: Carol Lefevre
Title: Murmurations
Cover design by Deb Snibson, MAPG
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925950083, pbk., 108 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

 


Responses

  1. How fascinating! I love Hopper’s paintings (saw an exhibition in London many moons ago) and like you I would have wanted to look at each of the paintings which inspired the stories. They’re so atmospheric…

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    • Lefevre says she had a book of them so I think she loves Hopper too. I discovered him when I read a Virago edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God, with Carolina Morning on the cover. A perfect choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Quite a clever idea to structure this around those paintings. Like you I would have felt compelled to look up the paintings myself. I’m reading a book set in the Bauhaus movement and it mentions Klee and Kandinsky so I’ve had a very pleasant hour looking at their work

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    • That sounds like my kind of book. I love books that marry art and literature.

      Like

      • It’s an interesting one, At the heart of is a fairly standard thread of a problematic romance but it’s given more of an edge because we know right from the start that one of the parties ends up in a concentration camp

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have always loved Hopper’s paintings, the sort of other-worldly reality they convey, the still melancholy of them, which speaks to the lives here in a way.

    I loved this book, thanks for the link.

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  4. I think the juxtaposition of visual art and literature is so evocative. And the subject matter of women’s lives always interests. I do believe V.Woolf oft remarked how she envied Vanessa being a painter and her own writing is often painterly. I will enjoy this am sure. But oh for another day in the week to catch up with these wonderful reviews of yours Lisa.

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    • LOL, Fay, you don’t need to read them all!

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  5. Thank you for including the wonderful slideshow – a lovely way to slow down at the end of the day, as I wait for dinner to cook :-)

    You and Sue are tempting me very much with this book. It’s slimness is another factor in it’s favour right now as well. And the lovely cover…

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  6. So glad you reviewed this book, I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommended it to my book club as well. I’ve always loved Hopper’s paintings too!

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    • We are so lucky that these days we can see his paintings online, no matter where they are in the world!

      Like


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