ASHLEY HAY A Hundred Small Lessons. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
Ashley Hay’s new novel gives us warm, affectionate portraits of people and place in a story that shifts between past and present.
Longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award, Ashley Hay’s previous novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, was a love letter to Thirroul. A Hundred Small Lessons, her new novel, similarly explores lives and location with a story set in a riverside suburb of inner Brisbane.
An elderly woman, Elsie, lies helpless after a fall. Calmly, she watches the sunlight creep across the floor as the hours pass:
The light caught the pattern on the lino and touched the little nests of dust that her broom had missed under the lip of the kitchen cupboards.
Elsie doesn’t panic. Instead, she contemplates her 60 years in the house, a Queenslander, consoled by its familiar noises: ‘… the house muttered a little too, its boards creaking and stretching as the day warmed’.
By evening, the neighbours realise something is wrong: ‘… are you there, love?’
This poignant opening, rich in sensual detail, sets up the premise — and premises — for the story. Importantly, we learn about the house. We meet 89-year-old Elsie, whose only ambition was for home-making. And we learn about the warm, long-established community that surrounds her. The neighbours’ concern for Elsie establishes that these people know each other’s habits, they check on each other, they call each other ‘love’.
When it is determined that Elsie can no longer live in her home, her children — twins now nearly 70 — make the difficult decisions. Elsie becomes a resident of a nearby nursing home. Young couple Ben Carter and Lucy Kiss buy the house, moving in with baby Tom, painting the front door lipstick red, taking down the wallpaper, ripping up the lino and polishing the floorboards.
Ben is a science writer; Lucy struggles to accept her new identity as stay-at-home mum. And certainly the author creates a convincing sense of the frustrating, overwhelming and messy unpredictability of children. Lucy’s predicament — and Ben’s bewilderment in the face of his wife’s disorientation — ring true.
And Elsie? Well, maybe she manages to wander back to ‘her’ house at night. Or are the night visits just Lucy’s overreactions, provoked by her life as a new mother in a new house in a new city — and her distance from her previous self?
The story shifts between past and present. We learn about Elsie’s beloved husband Clem, a janitor at the university. Although he died over 30 years before Elsie’s fall, Clem is very alive in her memory. Married during the war, they are the first owners of the house, raising the twins there: dutiful Don and prickly Elaine. When they meet science professor Richard Lewis and his second wife Ida, they gain a glimpse into lives very different in status and outlook to their own. Ida paints Elsie’s portrait, and Elsie’s time sitting for the artist shows her a range of possibilities she had never considered.
Nevertheless, Clem and Elsie’s contentment contrasts with the uncertainties of the home’s new owners. The house is a literary device that invites readers to compare today’s life choices with the lifestyles of the generations since World War II. While Elsie loved motherhood, her daughter Elaine resented her parents’ inability to consider that she might want more. By the time of Lucy’s generation, women’s expectations have changed so much that her mother criticises her for choosing full-time motherhood: ‘I thought you’d make more of yourself’, is her mother’s comment. And: ‘It’s archaic … giving up your job to be supported by your husband.’
Lucy’s fascination with the previous owner is depicted as obsessive, a symptom of her yearning to feel settled. She seizes on Elsie’s left-behind teacup, doilies and photographs, romantically seeing them as emotional links with the past inhabitants.
Elsie’s memories reveal less glowing aspects to the story. Although she had been happy, the reality of her life seeps through to unsettle the reader: the necessity to make do, so that a good green frock, trimmed with lace, becomes a wedding dress; the deep sense of class difference between Elsie’s family and the university folks; the narrowness of female roles, especially for working-class women; even the lack of exposure to the world of ideas or the lack of opportunities to travel.
All these topics are worthy of exploration, but the characters’ intersections with each other often seem forced, their interactions created diagrammatically to stage these discords. And a twist near the end of the book feels artificial: someone Ben meets fleetingly during the 1974 flood turns out to be Elsie’s granddaughter. Of course, such coincidences do happen, especially in a city of Brisbane’s size. But somehow the writing here is not convincing in the magnificent way that the opening scene is.
There is no doubt that the book’s situations and characters have great potential. When Elsie’s portrait is being painted, she reacts intensely — passionately — to Ida and her world, a previously unknown kingdom in which blue can be cerulean or ultramarine. In fact, given the influential artistic circles in Brisbane at this time, there is a whole wonderful potential novel in Elsie and Ida’s encounter.
And neither does the sense of place quite gel. A plethora of details sets the scene: ‘purple brilliance of the jacarandas along the river’; the rain, the rampant growth of ‘vines, the trees, the leaves and branches’; the curlews and crows, a python on the path; the university sandstone, the turgid river that floods, threatening the house. But in other ways, particularity is missing — is there a verandah? Is there lattice, iron lace, railings? How are the front stairs oriented to the house? After the gorgeously imagined opening, the individuality of the house dissolves. And even though it rains and rains, somehow Brisbane’s heavy atmosphere is missing; the weight of humidity, the lassitude that it creates.
But maybe I expect too much. I once lived in this exact area and perhaps I want the book to adhere more closely to my own past memories.
What Hay does achieve, however, are warm, affectionate portraits of Elsie and Clem. Their relationship did convince me, and I cared about them more than any other character. That’s really a challenge: to present such happy, ordinary people, without making them too simplistic, too boring, or entirely satirical.
Ashley Hay A Hundred Small Lessons Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 384pp $32.99
Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.
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