Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2022

Blood in the Rain, by Margaret Barbalet

When Bill from The Australian Legend posted his list of women writers that he’s badged as Gen4, amongst many familiar names, I recognised Margaret Barbalet (b-1949), but couldn’t quite place her.  A quick trip to Goodreads gave me the answer: Barbalet is the author of one of my favourite children’s books, Reggie Queen of the Street. Shortlisted for the 2004 CBCA Book of the Year, and with exquisite illustrations by Andrew McLean, it’s an empathetic parable about moving house and adapting to somewhere new. It was a story that I could relate to and so could so many of my students who had unsettled lives. (See a review here).

My Excel record of reading also revealed that twenty years ago I had read Barbalet’s last published novel, The Presence of Angels (2001).  It was meant to be the first novel in a trilogy but Penguin didn’t publish the follow-ups.  Alas, my thoughts about the novel are riddled with plot spoilers, so I won’t share them except to say that it’s about expatriates in Kuala Lumpur, and the fragility of their love lives.  That makes it sound banal, but it’s not. It’s about adaptation too, and the heartlessness of fate, and Barbalet’s observations resonate with the sights, sounds and smells of city life in a developing nation:

In the city that morning in the dark, the men woke from a sleep that hurt, to trudge towards the building site, from lean-tos and shanties, from old huts that projected out over the creeks, on the sides of the river that pushed down towards the city.  Haniff and Omar, still nourished by food eaten yesterday in Medan, came with the rest, pretending to feel at home with the strange new streets, pretending they had been born here too, praying that no one would ask, slipping in through the gates, not glancing at anything, to where the building cast its huge shadow up to the sky.  As they walked, others, twenty floors up, watched from their small square of space, their knowing place on the hugest of structures. Omar saw a man relieving himself in the grass, squatting so that only his knees and head were visible.  He looked away.  Was that how they would live? The boss, however, had not asked for their papers, or passports: they would live.

(The Presence of Angels, Penguin, 2001, pp.59-60)

I remember the shock of seeing house-builders in Indonesia, clambering perilously over flimsy structures, and working with none of the safety gear or procedures that protect builders from death or injury in Australia.  Without judgement, Barbalet’s novel shows us what it’s like to be in the underclass in places where life is cheap.

That skill in bringing time and place to life is there in Barbalet’s debut novel too, and so is her interest in the lives of the poor.  Blood in the Rain (1986) is an exquisite book, remarkable for the way it recreates the life of young Jessie in the early years of the 20th century as if the author had lived it herself.  Without the dramatic events that populate Ruth Park’s Depression-era trilogy Missus (1985); The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949), Blood in the Rain focusses on the interior lives of two children orphaned by neglect and abandonment.  Little Jessie and Stephen, the older brother she idolises, are separated by well-meaning relations with very different results.

Stephen is admitted into the newly bourgeois life of Mr James, who is unsurprised by the domestic calamity of his sister Clare’s marriage to the feckless Irishman Sheldon.  Neither James nor his daughter Miss Dorothy have any idea about raising children, but there was no doubt Stephen would require very careful handling. 

There was so much in him that had never been  checked, that had run into tangle, into extravagant leaf; dirty thoughts, bad impulses, tempers, tears, insolence, no doubt a passionate desire for his own way.  He had succeed with Dorothy.  All the little crises had been met; she had learnt to obey, to accept, to listen. (p.35)

The nagging about table manners begins on the first day and never stops.

He sat at the table trying to eat his lunch. The voice went on and on.  He wondered how she found time to eat.  This voice never stopped.
‘Elbows off the table.’
‘Cut that: don’t put all that in your mouth at once.’
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full.’
He had been about to ask for some more bread but stopped.
‘Don’t clank.’
‘Don’t hold your knife like that.’
‘There’s no need to gobble.’
‘Elbows at your side when you eat.’
‘Don’t speak with your mouth full.’
He sat back and looked at her dancing knife and fork.
‘Elbows off the table.’
‘Sit up straight.’
‘Please may I: that’s the way to ask. (p.37)

This barrage of middle-class rules contrasts with the rough-and-tumble of family life that Jessie lands in.  Life with the Whaites is more perilous.  While Mr James has risen from clerk to manager, Mr Whaite stumbles from job to job and there’s never much money to spare.  But the welcome is sincere, and motherly:

Jessie followed Mrs Whaite through the front gate.  It dragged on the ground. A face was staring at her through the front window.

‘What a journey we’ve had, Bertha!’ She held out her hand to Jessie. ‘And this is our new little girl.  Shy I’m afraid but I’m sure we know the remedy for that.’

Suddenly a pair of large arms encircled Jessie.  Her face was dusted with kisses.  Then just as suddenly she was free again as though nothing had happened.  Bertha looked at her beaming. (p.49)

From the bleak environment of a loveless home, Jessie settles into life with siblings Bessie, Frank, and little Albert and eventually there is school.  Although she never stops missing Stephen and craves contact with him, she begins to feel secure.  But fate intervenes (as it did in The Presence of Angels) when Mr Whaite goes away to war and doesn’t return.  Devastated by grief, Mrs Whaite can’t afford the extra child, and Jessie is sent to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to Stephen’s guardian Mr James.  The realisation that she was someone who could be offloaded like this is a cruel moment in the child’s life.  The image of Jessie put to bed in a strange new bedroom with cold white sheets, brings to mind all the lost and lonely little kids who don’t have a secure home:

If this were the Whaite house someone would have heard, she thought, heard her crying and come to comfort her.  But although she had opened the door when she went across to turn off the light, she knew that no one would hear.

There was a dim light on further down the hall and it made her doorway into a square stage of light, a barrier between darkness and light.

No one else would be left like this.  Not Bessie, not Frank, not Albert.  And then she had begun to cry.  Bessie would be lying asleep. Bessie would be able to hear the sounds of the trains as she herself had done only last night.

But you, you, were someone who could be left.

You were someone that even a motherly person might be able to turn away from. That made the tears tear and flood out of her throat.  Everytime she thought perhaps they would stop, she would think that Mrs Whaite had gone away from her.  And then the tears would start again and again, each one bringing back the pain as though she had not thought of it ever before in her whole life, as if she felt it for the first time. You were someone who could be left. (p.81-82)

Not since I read Alva’s Boy by Alan Collins have I been so moved by the plight of an abandoned child.

At fifteen, Jessie develops strategies to strengthen a resilience hard won.  In domestic service at one place after another, Jessie still craves contact with her brother.  Stephen is now maimed by the war that lasted long enough for him to enlist underage and he has to negotiate the Depression with a constant search for work in places far away.

There were no choices on this walk.  It was the way she always took when she had to feel at home with the narrowness of things.  (p.145)

Still very young, she finds love, and loses it, and as Stephen’s cavalier absence from his young family lengthens, she comes to the conclusion that everyone betrays you in the end.  The vista looks bleak:

The open door showed her the bare space of the yard, the dust and curls of peach leaves, that short space, never enough room for the children to play or the washing to dry, all that they owned, all the space they had in the city of the poor. (p.172)

It sounds melancholy, but Jessie is undefeated.  The scent of flowers, which are a motif throughout the novel, brings back that love which she had thought was dead.

It would not die, that feeling.  I might deny it, she thought, control it, or skirt round it, but something ordinary, something so simple it would never fail, it would disappear only to flower again next year.  (p.202)

Jessie is still not twenty by the end of the novel, and the final pages offer a kind of triumph.  I would love there to have been a sequel to this novel!

Author: Margaret Barbalet
Title: Blood in the Rain
Cover illustration and design by Kim Roberts
Publisher: Penguin, 1986
ISBN: 0140089446, pbk, 204 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Dromana Books $7.00

 

 


Responses

  1. Darn it … haha … this is the book I’m reading right now and thought it would be something new for the week, as people don’t talk about her! I’ve had it on my TBR for decades – indeed the Penguin Recommended price is $7.95! I’ll come back and read this post later.

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    • No, you’re kidding?!
      Great minds and all that…

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      • No, not kidding … and would you believe that with my new problem commenting on your blog, I can’t “like”. You need to be “signed” in to “like” and it doesn’t think I’m signed in. This happens on some other blogs too, but not on others, and not on yours until recently. It’s so weird, and so IRRITATING.

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        • I don’t know what to suggest, Sue, other than persistent requests for help to WP…

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  2. Foster parenting is such a difficult area, though not as difficult as being fostered probably. Archie Roach was fostered for years by a white middle class family, and one day he just walked out the door and never contacted them again.
    You’d think such a fraught relationship would be ripe for fiction writers to investigate, but it doesn’t seem to be very often looked at closely, as it has been here.

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    • There’s a very fine novel called Stone Girl, by Eleni Hale, published just a few years ago, which is based on her experiences in state care, shunted from one foster home to another.
      I also have a forthcoming review of a memoir (I hope) about the experiences of an orphan boy in so-called foster homes which were really a front for exploitative workplaces. (The review is on pause until some… a-hem… publication issues are resolved.)

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  3. I knew WG was looking at Barbalet, but I’m sure she’ll stand being looked at from two viewpoints.

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  4. Lisa, what a ‘can of worms’ you opened for me with the review of ‘Blood in the Rain’ and your reference to ‘Alva’s Boy’. The abandonment, the various kinds of fostering, the experiences of the teenager as compared with those of the small child, the kind of adult who emerges out of a fostered childhood: and finally, the perspective of the onlooker who is part of the family structure but whose personal background is completely different. ‘Alva’s Boy’ is from the child’s point of view. The protagonist, Alan, becomes a foster-father to ‘The Boy’, the sixteen-year-old son of a widowed Holocaust survivor who has lost his mind and is now in a mental hospital. The fostering comes about accidentally, is intended to be short-term and ends up being for life. As the ‘onlooker’ I have written a chapter about this in ‘Rosa’:

    The call came from Jewish Welfare, an organisation of which she knew nothing.
    ‘How did they find us?’ Rosa asked.
    Al, who was much more aware of the amazing network capabilities of the Jewish community, just smiled knowingly.
    ‘They want us to look after a boy, child of Holocaust survivors. His mother died recently here in Melbourne and his dad’s so griefstricken he’s permanently hospitalised. His present foster-parents are going overseas for three months. It’s only a short stay. Should we say yes?’
    Al’s mind flashed back to his own disastrous childhood: a mother who had died at his birth, a father who neglected him, a wet nurse at the Scarba Home for ‘fallen women’, Ashfield Infants’ Home, an abusive stepmother and finally the Isabella Lazarus Children’s Home.
    ‘Of course we will.’

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    • Hello Ros, lovely to hear from you, we are a bit spooked by Omicron or I would have been to see you by now….
      Yes, I remember that. A wonderful thing to have done. I have known other wonderful foster parents during my teaching years, and I also know a family who took in twins during the Depression and they never went home.
      I have discovered since writing this review that Margaret Barbalet wrote a book called Far from a Low Gutter Girl: The forgotten world of state wards, South Australia, 1887–1940. Her bio had noted this, but only the title. Now I’ve found a description of it:
      “Drawing on the letters of girls who were made state wards, acclaimed writer and historian Margaret Barbalet’s Far From a Low Gutter Girl reveals the real world of Australian domestic servants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, amplifying their voices for the first time.” (I’ve bought it of course). So that explains how this author has been able to write such an authentic, convincing voice in the novel.

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  5. […] seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the […]

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  6. […] Amy Witting (here)Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital (here)Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet (here) plus quite a bit of background on BarbaletThe Penguin Best Australian Short Stories, Mary Lord ed. […]

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  7. Wow, that barrage of requirements at the table. Nice use of showing not telling (even though I think there’s a place for telling and wonder if that bit of advice is overused).

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    • Good point… I like it best when the writing seems natural rather than forced. Obviously it depends what sort of fiction we’re talking about but in real life we all do a mixture of showing and telling.

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