Remote country avails vivid interior lives
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.