Material girls end up choosing autonomy
In her new novel, The Spectacular Life of Sasha Torte, and its recent predecessor Hotel du Barry, Melbourne author Lesley Truffle gives the young female protagonists extraordinary adventures and social mobility. Her humour is droll, her tone arch, her satire pervasive.
Truffle’s novels may be consumed individually but they also work as matching confections. Scenarios set up in the first are renovated in the second, generally to the benefit of psychological motivation, plot momentum and expansion of scope.
Hotel du Barry (2016) is narrated from various points of view, while The Spectacular Life of Sasha Torte, a supposed memoir, is in the first person. Playing with the hypocritical pronouncements of old-school author’s prefaces, Sasha assures readers she will be “as honest as possible” about her “sensual proclivities”.
Those who object should think of her text as a potent champagne punch: “put [it] down slowly and abstain from ever sampling it again”. Or, as readers may recall Peter Carey’s inveterate conman narrator warning at the start of Illywhacker: “Caveat emptor.”
Truffle’s fictions can be seen as elaborate folk or fairytales. She alludes to the Brothers Grimm several times. When I first read Sasha’s account of living voluptuously in jail, occupying a tower sumptuously furnished by a nemesis attempting to assuage his guilt, I was reminded of the preWorld War I environment in which Angela Carter places her protagonist in The Bloody Chamber; Bluebeard’s young bride will learn and survive. Truffle’s books grant her characters wish-fulfilment in climates of abandonment, imposture and recent or imminent war.
A second way of viewing these novels is as performances. Backed by ensemble players, Truffle’s protagonists act out their formative and self-fashioning experiences. There is pageantry as characters show off their extravagances. It isn’t hard to envisage a contemporary Hogarth or Gillray deriving a sequence of urban cartoons from Truffle’s episodes.
The picaro tradition offers a third way of comprehending the trajectories of Truffle’s heroines. The picaresque narrative mode made a comeback in the second half of the 20th century, with screen and stage adaptations and new texts responsive to the increasingly permissive culture of the West. The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, based on The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, a 1722 fiction attributed to Daniel Defoe, appeared in cinemas in 1965. And in 1991 and again in 2006 another Defoe work, Roxana, aka The Fortunate Mistress, or A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, returned in made-for-television productions.
In local literature, some Australian male authors adopted the picaresque mode in the 1970s and 80s, usually creating male protagonists (David Ireland was an exception). The most successful of these narratives was Illywhacker. Currently Truffle is one of very few authors concocting fantastical prose histories of young women. Krissy Kneen could be considered another. Her blending of science fiction with bildungsroman and literary-inflected erotica in The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine is not entirely alien to Truffle’s imaginative content, which extends to such surreal scenes as a tango danced in Hades.
The story of Caterina in Hotel du Barry begins in 1919, coincidentally the year of the opening escapade in Illywhacker, and extends to the late 1930s. Truffle’s fictitious London hotel, “an opera of opulent yet intimate pomposity”, is the mothership of a chain built by Daniel du Barry’s father from the profits of brothel-keeping.
When a foundling is discovered, Daniel and his unloving partner in a lavender marriage adopt her, the hotel providing an educative setting for the rearing of the sharp-eyed Cat. With crimes of passion and avarice never too far away, the Hotel du Barry’s detective, the noirsounding Jim Blade, is kept busy. And when love and the search for her birth mother propel Cat to Paris, she finds it’s another city of superlatives. There is also a death in Venice, with a total of three suspicious deaths of splendid young men suggesting a serial killer is at large.
Sasha’s narrative moves from 1898 through to 1912, traversing times of social and technological change and imperialist expansionism. With her father dead and mother absent, Sasha is reared by her publican grandfather in an imaginary antipodean port. Wolfftown is an amalgam of the lawless wild west frontier communities of American movies, the reckless and piratical culture of maritime trade, and the remote colony run by pseudo-aristocrats, oligarchs and gangs.
Sasha’s initial financial gains require skilful hard work as the proprietor of a baroque-