Re­mote coun­try avails vivid in­te­rior lives

Bron­wyn Rivers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

FOOD is the cen­tral mo­tif in this thought­ful sec­ond novel from an awarded young au­thor, which fol­lows in a rich tra­di­tion of Aus­tralian women’s writ­ing. Food is var­i­ously an ex­pres­sion of love, a source of com­fort or a bat­tle­ground.

The sec­tion head­ings scat­tered through the text are of­ten types of food, such as ‘‘ french toast and potato cakes’’, ‘‘ just eggs’’ and ‘‘ a choco­late heart’’ for happy mo­ments, and ‘‘ cake and chicken and pud­ding with blood’’ when the story turns ill.

The novel fol­lows the life of Mumma, whose fa­ther sends her away to a re­mote is­land cot­tage be­cause she is preg­nant. The short scene at the open­ing of the novel says much about her pre­vi­ous fam­ily life. Ac­cord­ing to her fa­ther th­ese are ‘‘ un­savoury cir­cum­stances’’. Af­ter her par­ents drive away she is ‘‘ 18, six months preg­nant and alone, re­ally alone for the first time in her life’’.

As her daugh­ter is off­loaded, Mumma’s mother sits ‘‘ star­ing straight ahead’’, the only clue to her af­fec­tion be­ing the pa­per bag of scones tied up in a tea towel that is passed over at the last minute. Mumma cries for days, then sets to work in her kitchen, ar­rang­ing her recipes and be­gin­ning to bake.

An im­me­di­ate at­trac­tion is ap­par­ent be­tween Mumma and the boy liv­ing with his fa­ther in a neigh­bour­ing cot­tage in the sea­side scrub. She doesn’t catch his mum­bled name and he be­comes known as Mis­ter. Mis­ter hov­ers in Mumma’s life, driv­ing her to the hospi­tal for the birth of her baby, Lola Belle, and the two fum­ble into a re­la­tion­ship. Lola Belle is sit­ting on Mumma’s hip in the pho­tos taken when Mumma and Mis­ter get mar­ried.

As Lola Belle grows, Mumma ex­presses her love in the same way as her mother did: with her con­stant, de­li­cious cook­ing. Lola is ‘‘ Lolly’’, ‘‘ lit­tle lolly lick stick’’, ‘‘ my pud­ding’’ ‘‘ my dessert’’. Lolly grows up know­ing con­stant bak­ing and mix­ing, with ‘‘ but­ter love’’ and ‘‘ spud- love pie’’. She is an odd child who chews her dolls and gnaws on wood and rock. It is not sur­pris­ing that, when she gets to school, her re­la­tion­ship with the other girls is trou­bled; they can sense her dif­fer­ence im­me­di­ately. As Lolly reaches her teenage years her body grows volup­tuous and her trou­bles find vent in a fraught re­la­tion­ship with food.

Hosk­ing cre­ates a vivid world with colour­ful, idio­syn­cratic char­ac­ters and she touch­ingly evokes the pain of lone­li­ness and alien­ation. The bonds be­tween Mumma and Lola are finely ob­served. The two sus­tain a strong love along­side in­se­cu­ri­ties about each other’s opin­ions and af­fec­tion, as they dance back and forth, try­ing to find a way through a some­what smoth­er­ing re­la­tion­ship.

The au­thor has an as­sured, flow­ing prose style, with an in­ter­est in the colour and sound of lan­guage that is shown to par­tic­u­larly good ef­fect in the de­scrip­tions of food and cook­ing. Laced to­gether from short pas­sages rather than chap­ters, the novel is much more con­cerned with the emo­tion of the mo­ment than with ac­tion and story. Nev­er­the­less, it loses some of its en­ergy to­wards the end dur­ing its fo­cus on Lola’s un­happy teenage years.

The story is rem­i­nis­cent of Kate Grenville’s Lil­ian’s Story , with its imag­i­na­tive, oth­er­worldly wo­man who has dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ships with a stern fa­ther and her own ex­pan­sive body. Mumma, Lolly and Lil­ian are all out­siders with vivid in­te­rior lives and the nov­els are sim­i­lar in tone and style. The set­ting of Mumma’s cot­tage, iso­lated in the land­scape, and her ten­ta­tive early re­la­tion­ship with Mis­ter also re­mind me of El­iz­a­beth Jol­ley’s goth­icin­flu­enced The Well , which de­picts the bonds that grow be­tween two ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters liv­ing in a re­mote coun­try set­ting.

The man­u­script of Hosk­ing’s first novel, Ash Rain , won the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val award for an un­pub­lished man­u­script in 2002 and Hosk­ing was a Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald best young nov­el­ist in 2005, so it is un­sur­pris­ing that she has pro­duced an ab­sorb­ing sec­ond novel. It ful­fils her early prom­ise and bodes well for fu­ture work. Bron­wyn Rivers is the au­thor of Women at Work in the Vic­to­rian Novel. Cor­rie Hosk­ing is a guest at Ade­laide Writ­ers Week.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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