CARMEL BIRD Field of Poppies: extract
We’re thrilled to continue this series of extracts from recent Australian books with an extract from award-winning author Carmel Bird’s latest novel Field of Poppies.
What lies beneath the poppy field? There are rich and varied layers to Field of Poppies, which ranges from meditations on Monet’s famous painting to stories of life and death in the small Victorian goldfields town of Muckleton. When it opens, Pearly, who narrates the novel, and her GP husband William (who interjects with William’s Wise Words – WWW), have moved back to the city after seven years in Muckleton, where they had lived in the gracious old house Listowel, adjacent to an abundant field of poppies.
The events leading to Pearly and William’s abandonment of their rural idyll are a story of small-town life that includes robbery, gold mining, and the mysterious disappearance of local identity Alice Dooley and her violin.
In this extract Pearly’s Muckleton book club, the Mirrabookas, have set out to read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in memory of the missing Alice. In the process they discuss Alice’s former husband, Eamon, her disabled son, George (long resident in an institution at Fairy Hills), and her house, Ballakaneen.
Extract courtesy of Transit Lounge Publishing
From ‘The Disappearance’
The Spell Over the Town
A particular atmosphere of quiet dread and anticipation had hung over the town since Alice went missing. The vigil seemed to help, but there was fear, there was death in the air. At the same time as they looked you in the eye, you sensed people were averting their gaze. Alice was on everybody’s lips, at the forefront of the collective mind, and yet nobody knew what to say. Or do. Where to start? What to think? Could the person next to you be a killer? Or did they have Alice tied up, alive, in their garage? And the violin? Sometimes people thought about the violin. Where did that fit in? The vigil in the church hall with all its goodwill and candles and flowers and music did go some way towards breaking the spell.
I call it a spell, and yet a visitor to the town – a visitor who is unaware of the mystery, the disappearance of Alice, the blood and hair on the handle of the fridge, the missing violin, the herbs dying in the sink, the chickens wanly roaming in and out of the kitchen – might see only the busy, cheerful village as it goes about its daily life. The tall muscular parking inspector with his curly black beard silently and importantly marking the tyres, then issuing tickets, working his diligent way up and down the dreaming streets where it takes three hours to drink your several coffees, nibble your chocolate croissant, read the news of the world on your lovely magic little screen. You smile, nod, chat to other locals at other tables. Oh, the hustle and bustle of the waiters, the clatter and chatter of the cups, the saucers, the spoons. Laughter. The cosy aromas of all the food warming and simmering and bubbling in the little open kitchen. The works of local art on the walls of the café: birds and orchids and thick dark forests. The diligent parking inspector won’t let you have many minutes over time, but you have forgotten him. And then, when you have satisfied your need for caffeine, French pastries, news, you stroll out to the SUV only to find that the Parking Pirate – for that is how he is known – has left you his expensive calling card. Such is the business of the village. And life goes on, with the strange space left by Alice.
I’ll return to the matter of the vigil later, but I want to remember two more books we read at Mirrabooka that year, when the new gold mine was dominating our lives, and Alice was still dominating our imaginations.
They were the Alice books of Lewis Carroll. We went to Wonderland, and then we went through the looking-glass.
And still she haunts me phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes
Mirrabooka and Alice
I said we read Lewis Carroll in memory of Alice Dooley, who had by then been missing for eight months. And the fact is that almost at once we became so absorbed in the books we lost sight of our own Alice, in a funny way. For me, at least, she had become a shade. Somebody dies, they have some kind of funeral, they gradually take their place in the myths and memories of the past. But when they just go away and leave a space, and you seek them and honour them with references to old stories that are not their own – what happens then? I didn’t really know Alice Dooley to begin with. During our years in Muckleton, the people I got to know best were the women at Mirrabooka, and Caterina. Reading and housework, that’s what I seem to have been doing. William and I walked along the path by the creek most mornings, and we nodded to the other walkers but we didn’t really know them well. Of course William got to know masses of people through the practice.
‘I didn’t get to know Alice, actually,’ I said.
‘She got more and more eccentric after the divorce.’
‘She always was eccentric.’
‘But such a brilliant musician.’
‘She played at Felicity’s wedding. I’ll never forget that.’
‘Once she told me she wanted to go and live nearer to George. She was often very sad.’
‘Poor Alice. Poor George.’
‘Why didn’t she go and live near Fairy Hills?’
‘I think Eamon must have made it impossible, somehow.’
‘Yes, I think there was some arrangement about Ballakaneen. He still owned it – she was just permitted to live there. She had agreed to that, for some reason. If she left, she really had no money and nowhere to go.’
‘I think so.’
‘Yes, that’s what I heard.’
‘The Dooleys always were pretty overbearing. I never liked Eamon.’
‘I really liked his sister, Maeve.’
‘She married that actor from New Zealand and they had I don’t know how many children.’
‘Do you ever hear from her?’
‘Just Christmas cards.’
‘Alice used to make lovely personal Christmas cards. I’ve got one at home somewhere.’
Corinna brought Alice’s card to show us. It was a hand-painted picture of a kangaroo and a magpie wearing red and white caps. The very poignant thing about it was that behind them was an exquisite image of Ballakaneen.
‘Yes, she loved the house.’
But whatever the realities, the joys and sorrows of Alice’s life, they more or less drifted into myth, and the girl in Wonderland took over our imaginations. The hope and survival in Lewis Carroll’s narratives replaced the grim tragedy of the woman who had vanished in the middle of the night. The life of Lewis Carroll, the lives of the Liddell family, the making and publishing of the books, the wordplay, the language, the fun and laughter, the tantalising ideas – these things absorbed us. Well, you might say all those elements took our minds off darker things.
I believe the greatest thing about Alice is the tone of it, the way the presiding intelligence holds the reader in a trance of miraculous and passionate belief that is greater than the first response of delighted disbelief. The world is mad, says the tale, but that is possibly its strength and its salvation. It’s a story of survival against the odds.
To begin with, it turned out that Clover was the only one of the group who had ever actually read the books themselves. Everyone else, including me, knew the stories only from a kind of collective and popular hearsay. So it was particularly interesting to see us all finding out where the familiar characters and ideas and quotations came from. Several people owned copies that had remained unread since childhood. Some had Wonderland, some had Looking-Glass. Corinna had a beautiful presentation copy that had been given to her great-grandmother as a school prize – dark blue leather cover embossed in gold, six colour plates, a bookplate resembling a leaf from an illuminated medieval manuscript: ‘Academy of Mary Immaculate, Awarded to Agnes O’Day, English Literature, First Prize’. Some people had to buy new ones. I took along three copies: one that was mine, two that belonged to William – who, as it happened, had read both titles, and was very entertaining on the subject, quoting whole sections with glee.
An interesting thing was that everyone had a different edition. Amy had a Little Golden Book that had belonged to her mother – a Disney version from 1951. One of the miracles of publishing is the way Little Golden Books can last forever. I imagine they must be one of the last things to break down in the millions of books that lie rotting in landfill.
Instead of just talking about the books, we decided to spend some of the time reading several sections aloud. This was one of the richest and most enjoyable things we ever did at Mirrabooka, reading Alice. It turned out there were in our collective possession thirty-five books about Lewis Carroll and Alice, the latest one being from William’s library – The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, which is terrific. I for one had completely forgotten that the Wonderland story began life as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – and this realisation was horrible when we considered the fact that Alice Dooley was possibly dead and buried beneath the surface of the earth somewhere near or somewhere far, far away. We seldom overlooked the fact that the town of Muckleton had been built in the first place because gold was discovered under the ground, in the rocks and in the rivers, in the mysterious depths of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. Lewis Carroll changed the title for publication because he decided ‘under ground’ sounded too much like ‘instructions about mines’.
Also, like the story of Hanging Rock, Alice began during a picnic. Lewis Carroll and Robinson Duckworth rowed up the Thames at Oxford, where the river is called the Isis, with the three Liddell sisters on board, and had a picnic with storytelling on the riverbank by the ruins of Godstow Abbey in 1862. The goldmines around Muckleton were still going strong at the time. It’s a long way up the River Isis, and it requires vigorous rowing, so much of the storytelling and singing must have taken place when they arrived at the picnic.
Stories about happenings beneath the surface of the earth were very current in England at the time, so sending Alice down the rabbit hole was a good popular way to begin. Science fiction was in its early stages, and archaeologists were searching through ruins and barrows for evidence of lost history. Not to mention the enduring interest in Dante, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the underworld sequences of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. The wonderful irony is that Alice has far outstripped the earlier texts in the popular imagination. The nineteenth-century was a time when fossil-hunters were identifying dinosaurs, and there was much energetic exploration of what, apart from living things, precious stones, minerals and water, lay beneath the earth’s crust. Much of civilised life at the time depended on coal from underground. Consider also London’s sewers – their failure caused outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century. One of these sewers burst on the day, July 4 1865, when the picnic was taking place upstream beside the ruined abbey, and when Lewis Carroll was sending Alice underground.
London’s first cholera epidemic was in 1832, followed by more outbreaks in 1848 and 1853. These epidemics claimed the lives of about 32,000 people, the problem being that the sewerage system was incapable of managing the effluent of London’s population. In the hot weather of 1858 the city suffered from what was known as the Great Stink, when the Thames was described by a journalist as ‘a pestiferous and typhus-breeding abomination’. Beneath the surface of the metropolis scuttled and ran, in joy and celebration, eighteen million of the world’s most aggressive disease-bearing rats. The whole incredibly complex solution to the problem was designed by the brilliant engineer Joseph Bazalgette, and the vast new sewerage system was completed in 1874. Today eight million people use the London drainage network, and, I believe, the system is again struggling to cope.
Mirrabooka Studies Lewis Carroll
Because she was a speech therapist, Clover was the only one of us who remembered that Lewis Carroll had suffered as a stutterer, but this fact about him came up in many of the things we read. It seems he was more or less able to control the problem when he preached sermons, and it disappeared completely when he told the stories to the little girls. It was quite astonishing to see the variety and number of books about Lewis Carroll that came to Mirrabooka. We had given the Alice books three sessions over three months, but honestly, we could have gone on forever. Was Lewis Carroll some kind of paedophilic pornographer?
‘He probably wasn’t.’
‘He probably was.’
‘We can’t ever know.’
‘Lots of stuff in the books he wrote is fairly creepy. Weird, funny, absurd – but creepy.’
‘It sounds like a mirror to human nature to me.’
‘And his photos of naked children are shocking.’
‘And we are going round in circles.’
Historical context has such an effect on how one reads, and we were reading Alice and books about the author at the time when there was a long and painful Australian royal commission into the historical sexual abuse of children. So the abuse of children was often at the forefront of our minds. We read a letter by Lewis Carroll where he says that the ‘innocent unselfconsciousness’ of children is ‘very beautiful and gives one a feeling of reverence, as at the presence of something sacred’.
‘That sounds very grand and sacramental.’
‘But is it a pose?’
‘We’ll never know.’
From Carmel Bird Field of Poppies Transit Lounge Publishing 2019 HB 264pp $29.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.