Monday, 29 February 2016

Battered Penguins - One of the Wattle Birds by Jessica Anderson

I enjoyed this short book which tells the story of Cecily, a young woman whose mother has died and who, partly as a consequence, partly because she is growing up and the closeknit friendships of youth are beginning to dissolve, finds herself feeling increasingly alone.

Cecily is studying for university exams. The text she is studying is Morte d'Arthur by Malory. I have never read it, but I suspect it may tell of a quest and thus mirror the quest of Cecily to try to find an explanation for her mother's behaviour towards her in the months before she - the mother - died

The story is set in Sydney and there are many passages in the book that made me homesick for that lovely city. For instance, at one point Crcily is carried pillion on a motorcycle up one of those steep streets around Coogee:

"...he roared up in an absolutely straight and glorious burst, while alongside us raced an exploding strip of sun and ocean and green or rocky headland."

As well as bringing back that milieu vividly to my mind's eye, this kind of description reminds me somehow of Helen Garner's style. One might call it Australian heightened realism - except it isn't really the style that is heightened; the truth is the experience of being in Australia - something to do with the height of the sky, the size and emptiness of the country and, more than anything, the light - is itself heightened. Life there is more vivid than elsewhere, brighter, sharper - or so it seems to me ( and in answer to potential objections about excessive nationalism, I should point out that, while I miss this aspect of life often, it isn't necessarily an absolute positive; living in a heightened, brighter reality can be rather wearing after all).

I also enjoyed purely Australian touches such as describing someone as having "little hands curled over, like a kangaroo."

Actually, hands are something of a preoccupation with Cecily. As well as those kangaroo like ones,  she observes those of her Aunt Gail, (a brilliantly sketched monster of self-centredness, a person who imagines herself more successful than she really is at disguising her true nature beneath a veneer of charm):

"I look at the helpless white hands on the big wheel, at the rings on her pointed fingers."

and those of her cousin, applying hand cream, (I love this description):

"I watch Hilary's slender little hands lovingly administer to each other."

Whether this has anything to do with the identification of "high handedness" as an important force in Cecily's mother later in the story, I don't really know.

The story itself is slight. Cecily does attain her quest's object, to some extent. What holds the attention though is not the plot so much as the characterisation - most particularly Cecily, who won my affection almost instantly. - and the small vignettes along the way, such as the little scene between the surfers Shane and John, which is entirely incidental but peculiarly touching.

I remain puzzled by the role of Wil, Cecily's boyfriend, in the book. He is much admired (by Aunt Gail and the world in general), but unempathetic, not obviously imaginative or, really, sympathetic in any way that I could see.  Cecily never betrays a critical thought about him, but does have an increasingly long list of things that she has decided not to tell him. "I foresee no end to the things I won't tell Wil", she declares at the end of the book, although apparently this is not a concern to her. Her mother has stipulated in her will that Cecily can only come into part of her inheritance if she marries, which, naturally, complicates their relationship.

At one point, struck by grief suddenly, Cecily tells us:

"I want to stop under a tree and cry out that this time last year I had so much, and ask why I have been left with so little. But I can't do this, not to Wil, not only because it would be insulting, but because it would make me see myself, reflected in the mirror of Wil's principles, as disgracefully self-indulgent in view of the various deprivations around me, to say nothing of the sorrow, terror, famine, and the clash of ignorant armies in the terrible world outside. Will wants to live his life in full consciousness of that world, he genuinely does, and so would I perhaps, but whatever I do, my concerns remain narrow, and I often forget all about it."

Someone who thinks it is possible to subjugate grief about your own individual loss by remembering the misery suffered by anonymous crowds in far off countries is a clod, in my view. In any case, Wil's casual announcement that Cecily can no longer come grape picking with him and that he will be leaving her alone over the summer suggests to me that before long he will be sliding out of this relationship permanently.

It is a great achievement on the part of Anderson that she has made me believe in these characters so much that I am prepared to speculate on their future actions beyond the confines of the book in this manner - Wil, of course, won't be doing anything, because Will doesn't actually exist.  An even greater achievement is the way in which, by including tantalising glimpses of Cecily's mother, allowing her to appear very briefly and then vanish before we are ready to let her go, she creates in us a similar longing to that which burdens Cecily. The nterlude in which she talks to her father also, for me at least, very delicately and beautifully portrays the absolutely unique bond that is the one between a father and a daughter. If there is any kind of conclusion, perhaps it is contained in Cecily's father's observation during this conversation that, "You'll never know the simple verbal truth. Yet you may arrive at an answer", and in Cecily's subsequent statement, "Casually but completely, I put my trust in time."

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