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.
Bettina lives in a very small town with her mother somewhere in the outback. It’s an area of farmers and hard scrabble and everyone being in everyone else’s business; they’re a long way from everyone else. Her father and brothers have been missing for some time, but Bettina’s life seems to be going its own quiet, easy way, until something comes along that starts a disruption. And then she chooses to follow where that disruption leads, becomes (re)acquainted with two of her peers, and goes on the sort of literal and figurative journey that means you can never properly go home again.
Like most Australians, I am a city/suburbs person. Like slightly fewer Australians I have spent some time “in the bush” although never for especially extended periods (days and weeks, never years). For all that much of the (white) Australian apparently has this romantic notion of, or attachment to, “the outback”, that’s not the reality for most people – who’ve never spent long periods outside of a large town, never worked on a farm (I’ve visited but not worked), don’t really know what it’s like away from streetlights.
All of that is, I think, an interesting backdrop for coming to this novel. I definitely think Australian audiences will come at it differently from, in particular, an American one. For Australians, the fact that Jennings did in fact grow up in a rural area will be an important part of trusting her insight and the way she sets her story up; it certainly was for me. Not that someone like me couldn’t write a story about an outback town and have it work – but I trust Jennings and her observations because I assume she is writing at least partly from experience.
Jennings calls this an “Australian gothic.” I did not study the gothic genre at uni, when most of my friends did; it has never especially appealed to me as a genre. I think, in my head, it comes too close to the aspects of horror that I dislike; I don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable. So I can’t speak to the accuracy of the gothic label – although there were definitely bits where I felt uneasy, and was put in mind of the stories we used to tell each other as kids, about things like the Min Min lights and other such things.
There are many things to love about this book. Firstly, the structure. The narrative proper is interrupted every second chapter by the insertion of a story-within-a-story. These might be told by someone who’s present, or be second or third-hand. Their connection to present events isn’t always obvious, but always becomes so. And they’re generally linked to some piece of folklore, or apparently superstitious warning, that might be straightforward to ignore during daylight but becomes less so at twilight. This was an intriguing way to flesh out the story, and also contributed to a sense of … disconnect; of things not working exactly as they should, because the narrative isn’t straightforward. It left me feeling unbalanced, like I wasn’t sure things were happened as I expected.
Secondly, the art. Jennings is probably most well known in Australia, and indeed overseas, for her art – which isn’t entirely fair since she’s written and had published any number of short stories; but her book covers, in particular, have had a fair bit of notice, and justifiably so. It’s her own artwork on the cover, which is awesome; there are also fantastic pieces at the start of every chapter, and on the folded covers. They make me particularly happy to own this in hard copy.
And thirdly, of course, the writing and the story itself. Publishers Weekly describes it as “spellbinding, lyrical prose”, Kelly Link says that her prose “dazzles”, Holly Black that it is “exquisitely rendered.” All of that. Jennings evokes a particular feeling of Australia – the space, the dust, the sun, the trees, the oppressive expanse – that made me glad I was reading this in my nice suburban house (even if it is during lockdown), and not while out camping, because I think that being in the bush while reading it might have been just too much. It would have made it too… real. So the setting works brilliantly; and the people do, too. My nan moved to a small town after marriage when she was 20 years old; into her 70s some of her peers still treated her as new to the place. Small towns can have delineations that strangers don’t see – I’ve heard the stories of Catholic and Protestant areas in teeny little Victorians towns – and that’s brought to the fore here, too. And then there’s the folklore, and the uncomfortable sense that maybe more is going on beneath the surface than is immediately obvious…
I really hope Flyaway gets a lot of notice, and from a wide-ranging audience. A lot of Australians will enjoy it for the way it plays with notions of “The Australian outback” – and frankly it’s just gorgeous.