Com­ing closer to the source

Ash­ley Hay finds her ac­quain­tance with a clas­sic Aus­tralian novel is moulded by time and place — and a re­mark­able co­in­ci­dence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In 1988, the NSW Board of Stud­ies in­cluded Jes­sica An­der­son’s Tirra Lirra by the River in its Year 12 English cur­ricu­lum. An­der­son had pub­lished the book a decade ear­lier and it won the Miles Franklin. The novel tells the story of Nora Por­te­ous re­turn­ing to her child­hood home in Bris­bane and spin­ning, for the first time, the globe of mem­ory pop­u­lated by her life’s events. She con­sid­ers a mar­riage, an abor­tion, a sui­cide at­tempt. She con­sid­ers art and love and friends as she lies, ail­ing, in the house where she grew up.

At 17, in the class­rooms of Bulli High School on the NSW south coast, I obe­di­ently mem­o­rised its quotes and an­a­lysed its im­agery. I learned the ex­tract from the Ten­nyson poem that gave the novel its ti­tle (“From the bank and from the river / He flashed into the crys­tal mir­ror. / ‘ Tirra lirra,’ by the river / Sang Sir Lancelot”).

I prac­tised es­says to be performed as an exam. But as for the book it­self, I was ut­terly certain I loathed it. I didn’t get it. I was sure it had noth­ing in­ter­est­ing or rev­e­la­tory to say to me, and I was cal­low enough (as my English teacher might have said) to think that made the book a waste of time.

I must have known, some­how, that I was wrong, be­cause the book lodged more firmly in my imag­i­na­tion than just about any­thing else I had to read that year: Max­ine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, for ex­am­ple, Thea Ast­ley’s An Item from the Late News, and other vol­umes that have dis­ap­peared com­pletely from my mind. When I moved to Bris­bane, 20 years af­ter fin­ish­ing high school, An­der­son’s novel de­manded a new round of at­ten­tion.

It started when I re­mem­bered her de­scrip­tion of a mango tree — ‘‘the old sort, with fi­brous fruit’’ — as I found my­self in a land­scape full of mango trees. There was a huge one in our yard, oth­ers in the yards all around, and a mas­sive twinned one — even more vast — in the park be­yond the back fence of the house across the road.

I re­mem­bered her de­scrip­tion of walk­ing a half-mile to the river — ‘‘broad, brown and strong’’ — as I walked my own half-mile to the river most morn­ings, try­ing to un­der­stand a pal­ette so dis­tinct from Syd­ney’s ul­tra­ma­rine har­bour and sea.

I re­mem­bered the el­e­gant way An­der­son de­scribed those par­tic­u­lar Queens­lan­der houses: ‘‘a heavy wooden box stuck twelve feet in the air on posts’’ and ‘‘four­teen planks span­ning the air’’ to bridge the space be­tween the ground and the front door.

The house across from our new place was in the mid­dle of un­der­go­ing that pop­u­lar Queens­land ren­o­va­tion — eased off its posts and hoisted higher again — to close in the space un­der­neath the house and in­stantly dou­ble its liv­ing space. For a south­erner, used to houses that stayed pre­cisely where they were put, it was ex­tra­or­di­nary to ob­serve.

We’d rented a big white house on a cor­ner block in Yeronga, in Bris­bane’s south, at­tracted by that vast park abut­ting those houses op­po­site and by the aqua­ma­rine shim­mer of the coun­cil pool tucked among its trees. Breezes trick­led down from the ridge that held Ip­swich Road, and from the side street that gave on to our drive­way, from some an­gles you could glimpse the city’s spires and the Story Bridge.

But in­side that white house, I was busy with other places: I was fin­ish­ing a book set on Syd­ney Har­bour; I was work­ing on a book set on the NSW south coast. On some days, Dawes Point and Thirroul seemed more real to me than Bris­bane, and in an at­tempt to re­dress that topo­graph­i­cal bal­ance, I de­cided at last to go back to Jes­sica An­der­son and Tirra Lirra and to see what it showed me this time. I was 39, with a young son. And I found my­self read­ing a dif­fer­ent and won­der­ful book.

I marked pas­sage af­ter pas­sage: lines of struc­tural beauty; lines of heart­break­ing hu­man­ity; lines that so per­fectly caught an as­pect of this place, or of peo­ple, or of the ways we try to go on through the world.

I cringed through the aw­ful­ness of Nora’s mar­riage and won­dered at how cold-heart­edly I’d judged that re­la­tion­ship when I was young. I felt her age. I felt her fear. I felt the very heat and light that she wrote of this place. And when I reached the last pages, I wept, won­der­ing how on earth its fi­nal im­age — a horse’s plume, ris­ing and fall­ing; the dropped-down shape of a lit­tle girl’s first black dress — could have left me so un­moved the first time round.

I read on through other An­der­son ti­tles. The Com­man­dant, a stun­ningly sharp his­tor­i­cal novel set around the first pe­nal set­tle­ment dug in at More­ton Bay. One of the Wat­tle Birds,

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