A modern tale steeped in sepia tones
The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer
IVORIE Hammer possesses a dictionary. Bound in leather and 3000 pages long, it is her most prized belonging. When she leaves for a new town, taking the long and treacherous journey across craggy, mountainous regions, she disposes of a cabinet within which is her treasured volume.
Down it falls, flittering perilously along the cliff face, and she later recalls the memory with horror: ‘‘ She thought of miniature cauliflower holes bitten into proper nouns, verbs disappearing behind damp swells and pale green fur: earth composting language effortlessly.’’
Words similarly tumble and pirouette down the pages of The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer, the debut novel of Melbourne writer Edwina Preston. This is a book very much about language, a loving tribute to the styles of centuries past.
It is a work intentionally, willfully anachronistic. Characters, for example, are not 25, By Edwina Preston UQP, 336pp, $29.95 they are ‘‘ five-and-twenty’’. The audience is addressed directly as ‘‘ dear reader’’. This is less a novel in its own right than someone playfully reproducing the idea of a turn of the (last) century novel.
It is a book that might, in another time, have been called ‘‘ charming’’, but it is rather too ironic and self-aware for that. Ivorie Hammer is a modern book in period dress-up, the literary equivalent of a sepia-toned filter on a photo.
The strange history of the town of Canyon establishes this tale in the prologue. Two men, Otto and Arcadia, the ‘‘ Brothers Cirque’’, are the founders of Saturnalia, a travelling circus show. When they visit the House of Jupon, a brothel in the town of Pitch, both fall in love with the same woman, Miss Marianne Ward. But when Miss Ward falls pregnant to Arcadia, who has abandoned her for another woman, things take a terrible turn. Arcadia is found shot dead in his room, a gun in his lap, and the heavily pregnant Miss Ward is never seen again.
When we begin the novel proper, it is a half century later. The chance discovery of a bone from a human foot stirs up events from the past that have remained buried for decades, changing the lives of the town of Canyon and Mrs Ivorie Hammer and her husband, Ernest, too, who have never known the true story of her origins, and seek to uncover the secret of her identity.
This book is undoubtedly amusing and entertaining. Where it is less successful, however, is in its status as a mystery. It takes far too long to get to the point where the main