Kather­ine Gille­spie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

A Hun­dred Small Lessons By Ash­ley Hay Allen & Un­win, 384pp, $32.99

In this era of soar­ing house prices and des­per­ate first-home buy­ers, it’s very brave or very silly to cen­tre a con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian novel on the con­cept of prop­erty own­er­ship. Puz­zlingly, the newly mar­ried cou­ple of Ash­ley Hay’s A Hun­dred Small Lessons pur­chase a large piece of river­side real es­tate with­out so much as men­tion­ing the huge mort­gage they have pre­sum­ably signed up for. The sense of won­der in­creases when you learn that one of them does not work, and the other — scarcely less pre­car­i­ously — is a news­pa­per jour­nal­ist.

Then again, Hay’s third novel is openly nos­tal­gic for a time when such things seemed pos­si­ble. And her in­vest­ment in the na­tional lit­er­ary tra­di­tion of ex­alt­ing the white picket fence is surely for­giv­able, not least be­cause the 1940s Queens­lan­der around which her plot re­volves brings to mind those wooden struc­tures on stilts ven­er­ated by an­other Bris­bane writer with prop­erty pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, David Malouf.

A Hun­dred Small Lessons is a throw­back in more ways than one be­cause it fo­cuses not only on the lives of neo­phyte Bris­baners Lucy and Ben, but also on the for­mer mistress of their newly ac­quired prop­erty, Elsie Gorm­ley. Elsie and her late hus­band, we learn, pur­chased the house when it was first built and lived there for 60 years.

In her old age, Elsie has been rel­e­gated to a nurs­ing fa­cil­ity be­cause of fail­ing health; her beloved weath­er­board is now in the hands of new­com­ers with unimag­in­ably dif­fer­ent lives. Hay’s novel deftly mixes the old woman’s misty mem­o­ries of the house’s for­mer splen­dours and her sad­nesses with it present predica­ments.

Although her as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­ity might be a bit of a pur­ga­tory, 89-year-old Elsie is not dead yet. And the elder woman haunts her young suc­ces­sors like a ghost, her mem­o­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences im­printed on their house in eerie ways. They re­place the wall­pa­per, move in their own fur­ni­ture, re­paint the door, re­plant the gar­den — but can­not shake the sense that they are in­trud­ers, im­pos­tors of some kind.

To her hus­band’s ini­tial amuse­ment and sub­se­quent con­cern, Lucy be­gins to imag­ine the old woman is mak­ing mid­night vis­its, break­ing in and check­ing up on them, steal­ing things. And Elsie, too, dreams of giv­ing her nurses the slip and re­vis­it­ing her old dwelling place in the dark.

The cover art makes it clear that this is a book in­tended (at least by its mar­ket­ing team) for women. So it is nat­u­ral enough that women’s sto­ries take cen­tre stage, with oc­ca­sion­ally acute sad­ness.

There is Lucy, stuck at home with a tod­dler in an un­known city while her hus­band trav­els fre­quently for his work. She, who was once a lover of travel and mu­sic, finds her­self at odds with a world of di­a­pers and Du­plo ses­sions and starts to ques­tion the choices she’s made: a house in the sub­urbs, hav­ing a child, mar­ry­ing in the first place. In her bore­dom and in­creas­ing para­noia, she wist­fully con­tem­plates the life of her new home’s for­mer owner and is soon openly fan­ta­sis­ing about what it was like.

The reader does not have to fan­ta­sise. Trapped in the con­fines of a bland ser­viced apart­ment where the only vis­i­tors are chil­dren and grand­chil­dren who ap­pear to find her bur­den­some, Elsie re­gales us with tales of rais­ing a fam­ily in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. She was in her day a far hap­pier house­wife than Lucy has turned out to be. Elsie seems at first to pos­sess noth­ing but fond­ness for the past. She grieves for her de­voted hus­band, who died sud­denly while still rel­a­tively young.

She hopes the new­com­ers are tak­ing ad-

Au­thor Ash­ley Hay

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