I’ve had Love Song half done for months, work’s picked up, not much reading time, my last break occupied with swimming to Rottnest Island – though I did manage to knock out Go Set a Watchman, similarly held up – till now I’ve nearly forgotten the storyline and am hurriedly re-reading, more or less as I go.
In passing, you might remember in my piece on Neville Shute I mentioned Di Morrissey, along with Bryce Courtenay and Judy Nunn, as Australian story tellers of no particular literary merit. Well, what goes around comes around, and pretty damned quickly. I was listening to Morrissey’s The Winter Sea in the truck last week and the heroine, whose surname is Holloway, adopts a stray dog which she promptly names … Bill.
Mind you, my favourite animal name in a novel is ‘Tasma’ (pen name of Australian novelist, Jessie Catherine Couvreur (1848-1897)) which Joseph Furphy used for Rigby’s horse in Rigby’s Romance (my earlier Furphy post here), in what can only have been an intentional insult for the best-known author of their day.
But, back to Nikki Gemmell. I think I’ve read all her adult novels – she also writes for children – of which my favourite would be Cleave, her story of living with Aborigines outside Alice Springs, although in recollections I often conflate it, at least in part, with Robyn Davidson’s Tracks, another favourite.
Love Song (2002) begins with a woman talking or writing to her unborn child. They’re in England, “a land where the sky’s so low it almost brushes the rooftops”, but she, Lillie, is from Australia, “where the light roared and the sea hurt.”
Lillie is haunted by a man who has died, unexpectedly and in front of her as it turns out, but first we must learn about her past. Lillie was, and her parents, Tiriel and Rebecca, remain, members of an isolated religious community in rural Australia. When she’s 13 Lillie owns up to starting a fire which has burnt down the community’s school, and as punishment and to prevent her parents being banished from the community, she’s sentenced to home detention on her parent’s farm until she turns 21. Lillie’s only contact with the community is visits by Ed (Edith) the town librarian and permission once a year to attend Christmas mass where she is the centre of attention and speculation.
The language Gemmell uses for Lillie is both awkward and poetic, reminiscent, for me, of the unusual cadences of verse novelist, and poet laureate of Blackburn South, Alan Wearne. First Gemmell:
I’m stopping abruptly for there’s some code of behaviour I’m sensing has been transgressed. Ed is all stiff and arm-crossed at the table and I’m cottoning on to some way I’m meant to be, discreet, polite, demure, not a threat, like that meek flower name that was long ago meant to girl me down.
“You’ve got to learn to fit in with the rest of us, Lil, you do it all wrong.”
And I’m leaning on my elbows and thrusting a smile into her face.
I’m struggling for a decent Wearne extract, but let’s try:
In a yard of native shrubs, orchard remnants, to the sound of a neighbour sawing/(back in Blackburn, where everyone lived when we were young),/groups chat. After lunch the booze has seeped and sprung/wells of various topics which keep on pouring,/even if it is Christmas and the tone’s more serious than hearty… (from The Nightmarkets)
After she turns 21 Lillie is shipped off to England where her grandfather has a cottage in the grounds of a decrepit, once stately home, for which he had for almost a lifetime been head gardener. There she meets and slowly forms a relationship with a strange boy camping in the ruins, a boy who by his accent, familiar and unwelcome, is Australian. Love Song is the story of the growth of that relationship, of Lillie’s ongoing connection with her parents and their community, of her growing understanding of and love for her cranky grandfather and, above all, of Lillie learning to seize her independence, as a teenager, through living and working on her own in London, and then, a late bloomer, finding her way to love.
Nearly at the end, Lillie writes:
So, my little one, I have scoured your father’s secret life like a forensic scientist but there are so many blanks and I can only find more of him by writing this out. I write what I know, but I also write to know…
There is just one photo of him. It’s always close. Newly arrived in the sun-splashed city and his face and his hands admonishing the camera’s gaze and a blustery blue ocean behind him and already he’s wearing the light in his cheeks. The memory of his lips is so vivid under my fingertips and each morning, in the dead hours, I take the photo and place it beside the laptop and I stare at the fingers that stroked a cat into thrumming once and the skin hoarding the sun and the eroticism of the hips, and I turn him into words, for it’s all I have left.
Gemmell’s early novels are, in order, Shiver (1997), Cleave – originally published as Alice Springs (1998), Love Song (2002) and The Bride Stripped Bare (2003). I get the impression that she is gradually stripping away all extraneous action, increasingly focusing her attention inwards on women finding their way in a sexual world, and experimenting as she goes with the language to express that.
In Love Song Gemmell’s heroine flowers slowly, from a gawky 13 year old who has seized a form of independence by embracing isolation, to a naive and unworldly 21 year old, and only from there, and still slowly, into maturity; and the language and the rhythms of Gemmell’s writing express this perfectly.
Nikki Gemmell, Love Song, Vintage, Sydney, 2001