Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 4, 2022

Telltale: reading writing remembering, by Carmel Bird

Carmel Bird’s beautiful new book Telltale: reading writing remembering is the perfect book for a post-covid brain.

That is to say,, it’s probably perfect any time, but when the ability to concentrate, read and remember is a bit compromised, a book like this is ideal.  It doesn’t have a plot to be followed, or characters to connect, or a narrative voice to interrogate for reliability.  It can be read in short, unconnected bursts of energy for the sheer delight of Carmel Bird’s reminiscences and the pleasure of the book’s exquisite design.

It’s ironic that I’m reading the book with a post-covid brain.  Telltale has its origins in the great Covid enchantment — enforced isolation during the pandemic — when the books in the author’s own personal library became the catalyst for this memoir.  As Australian readers will know, we had strict and lengthy lockdowns in my state, widely supported because we evaded the worst of the virus when it was at its most virulent and the previous federal government had failed to secure adequate vaccination supplies.  I’m reading the book now in the wake of being very unwell with the latest variant, but I was unlikely to die from Covid because I’ve had four vaccinations and the latest antivirals.  But the steady rate of deaths each week means that the sense of dread is not entirely vanquished.  (And we are not yet allowed out of the house, by law.)

Carmel Bird lives outside Melbourne in a small regional city and here she captures the sense of foreboding that was widely shared:

Dead of night.  I am at my desk, ‘safe’ inside my house in Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia.  This is dja dja warrung country.  The outside world is muffled by darkness and by the rows and rows of books.  A misty wave of danger and foreboding whispers at the windowpanes, creeps under the door, drifts down the chimney, tickles with invisible slippery poisonous fingers the chambers of my heart.  What is the shape of this hovering harbinger of death?  Do the vast lugubrious wings of some dark angel slowly beat above the tiny marbled sphere of the turning world? (p.14)

If you’ve read any of Carmel Bird’s novels, you’ll recognise the macabre imagery and the playful gothic style…

I have described Telltale as a memoir, but it’s more than that.

Telltale is composed of two different kinds of narrative.  One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which.  Will the threads hold?  What patterns might I work across the surface?  Will the metaphors crumble into useless dust?  One threads speaks of books read and sometimes of books written.  And also of things that happened in my life.  The other speaks of a journey of the heart, a pilgrimage through a patchy history of the world, becoming a poetic thread that runs through the whole narrative.  (p.5)

The book design by Sandy Cull encapsulates two motifs which run through the narrative, sparked by a childhood memory of a picnic: peacocks and bridges.  The image by Lorna Carrington of a peacock on the cover encloses endpapers with B&W photos of Launceston’s Cataract Gorge in 1890, There are peacock feathers on the drop capitals and section breaks are denoted by bridge vectors.  Tucked into the last page there is a small oval portrait of the author as a little girl in 1947.  The beauty of this design is no accident, as we learn on page 129:

It is clear to me now, having written so far about the books of my early childhood, that the Second World War had a powerful effect not only on my everyday life, my psyche too, but also on my experience of books. It could be unusual for a writer to include so much detail on the nature and design of books written within a memoir, but those elements of books were, I believe, significant in the overall business of reading, and I checked them out from a fairly early age.  They seemed to me to be important — mysterious messages from somewhere far away.  From a place called Publishing.  And of course there were fewer books to look at, so maybe I used to check out every word from beginning to end, for something to do.  In any case, I have, throughout my life as a writer, been seriously interested in book design and paper quality and fonts and so forth, and perhaps this is one of the telltale traces of my past reading. (p.129)

Like the author’s own ‘fanciful leaps mid-paragraph from one topic to another‘, my random thoughts about the book have, I hope, some kind of inner cohesion.  According to one of Carmel Bird’s writer-heroes, Colin Wilson in The Strength to Dream., narratives should have inner cohesion, ‘to draw the reader from page to page’.  Or in this case, to draw attention to a gorgeous book, memorable for its recreation of a lifetime of reading;  its sensitive attention to Australia’s fraught history and its witty insights — such as advice to writers to give up housework!

Author: Carmel Bird
Title: Telltale: reading writing remembering
Cover image by Lorna Carrington; design: Sandy Cull
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760927, hbk, 274 pages including index.
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.



  1. After my delight at reading this sensitive and illuminating review of my book, my first thought was that it would be a bit weird and improper for me to comment. So I am commenting. It is a strange feeling to read a review of one’s work, to travel with the reader through one’s own creation. Thank you, Lisa, for reading Telltale, and for perhaps leading other readers to venture into it. I hope you are feeling better, generally, not just as a result of having read Telltale.


    • Hello Carmel, *chuckle* you often comment on my other reviews, so why not this one. eh?
      What I liked most was the books, especially the ones I’ve read too. And the poetry, because I’m that generation that learned to recite too,…
      I also like the implicit argument that one should resist Kondo-ing and keep one’s books. Your fanciful leaps’ from one topic to another is much like what goes on in my brain when I cast my eyes over my books… not the detail but a feeling, or a fondness for a character, or a memory dredged up from what else was going on in my life at the time I was reading it. There is *nothing* about a Kindle that can reproduce these connections IMO.


  2. I will read this properly when I’ve read the book. So looking forward to it.


    • haha, you will love what she says about Jane Austen rewrites!


  3. This book does sound delightful. I might have to get an audio copy if available as the pain and blindness in my left eye at the moment has taken real books away from me in any great number. So annoying. I enjoyed your review of this.


    • Oh no, I am so sorry to hear that.
      You know, there was a lot to be said for the old C19th habit of families reading to each other in the evenings. The Spouse always says that he would read to me if anything happened to my sight, but I hope I never have to call him on it.


  4. On my list!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a copy of this beautiful book. Yet to be read, but I enjoyed your review here and the fact that you recommend it for fuzzy brains works well for me at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s nothing like Covid to mess with your brain. Over the last 48 hours I’ve gone from feeling almost normal, to sick as a dog and not caring about whether my brain worked or not, to now feeling a bit better but also fuzzy again.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read Bird’s Bluebird Cafe so I understand the reference to Cataract Gorge.
    Unlike you, and we are of the same generation and the same school system, I didn’t have to recite any poetry after I Love a Sunburnt Country in Grade 5. Thank goodness!
    If I ever come across this book i might check it out to see the background to her short story Buttercup & Wendy which I quite enjoyed.


    • Like any normal child, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about reciting poetry, but I came to value it when my father was very old. There was poetry embedded in his soul, and he just loved reading the poems he’d learned at school.
      About a fortnight ago I managed to get copies of The White Garden and Cheery Ripe, but not Bluebird Café. I’m looking forward to reading them:)


      • I’m sure it’s my turn to send you books, so ask and I’ll stick it in the post,


        • That’s kind of you Bill, and I might take you up on it after I’ve read the ones I’ve got.
          When are you next coming to Melbourne?


          • Not soon, I shouldn’t think. Hopefully mum will come here for xmas


            • Ah, I see. Well, covid permitting, you’re always welcome here for dinner, with a bit of notice.

              Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks Lisa, adding to my wishlist… :-)

    Liked by 1 person

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