I had thought that I liked travel memoirs. And I do – I can enjoy a good ‘and then we went here and experienced that’ story. But I’ve eventually realised that what I really enjoy is what I choose to call ‘domesticity in the exotic’. Exotic is a loaded word, but I use it here to evoke a sense of difference that I don’t think ‘foreign’ really captures; and I’m just as including a Brazilian or Nigerian writing about moving to Melbourne as I am a Londoner moving to Provence (I think Romulus, My Father arguably fits neatly into my category).
Before A Year in Provence or Under a Tuscan Sun came Mermaid Singing, by Australian Charmian Clift.
I read this book thanks to NetGalley. I’m incredibly pleased that it’s been republished.
Its most obvious parallel is My Family and Other Animals, and the rest of the Corfu Trilogy. Indeed, they were originally published in the same year, 1956. But ‘parallel’ is right: they seem to start similarly and go in the same direction – family moves impetuously to Greek island, experiences with Greek locals don’t always go as expected, genteel poverty etc – but they are fundamentally separated stories. Where My Family is written two decades after the events, Mermaid is contemporaneous. Where Durrell was the spoilt youngest son of the family and was off having adventures and occasionally going to school, Clift is a writer and a mother and a wife; while she has adventures, they’re not the focus, because she has the cares and concerns of an adult: both for her own family and the way she views the people around them.
My Family is a fond recollection of a childhood dream, /something something the world before World War 2 blah blah. Mermaid Singing is part ‘domesticity in the exotic’, but also a rumination on the hardship of Kalymnos life, and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950s trying to forge and continue a career alongside motherhood.
Clift writes beautifully, and evocatively. Kalymnos is an island that largely relies on about 10% of its population going out on sponge-diving expeditions for 7 months of the year – a dangerous occupation and one that’s bringing back less revenue as, in the 50s, artificial sponges are taking over the market. It’s also an island still, in Clift’s experience, in the grip of patriarchal attitudes (and Clift herself is part of this as she notes she has no right to comment on whether someone has beaten his wife at the end of a drunken week). The whole reason for moving here is for Clift and her husband to collaborate on their third novel, this one to be about the sponge-divers. And they do manage to do this, in between drinking a lot of retzina and being closely observed by all their neighbours and seemingly endless rounds of engagements and baptisms.
This is no day-by-day account of life. Like A Year in Provence it follows a year, observing the changes to life as the seasons come and go. Clift observes moments: a friend giving birth, experiences in the taverna, the experiences of her two children during Carnival…. As a gifted writer, she uses these moments to reflect on life itself – and death; and she conjures a wondrous view of Kalymnos. Is this likely to reflect the lives of the people who lived there their whole lives? Perhaps not. Perhaps they would recognise some aspect of their lives but be confused by an emphasis or examination. It does seem like a genuine reflection of Clift’s experience – an an ex-pat Australian, a writer, a woman who didn’t quite fit the expected mould of womanhood on the island.
I’m inspired to buy this in hard copy if I come across it.