A mod­ern tale steeped in sepia tones

The In­her­i­tance of Ivorie Ham­mer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bethanie Blan­chard

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

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