also: The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2014) is a work of popular fiction about a clique of kindergarten mothers, or competing cliques really, at Pirriwee primary school, a fictitious Sydney beachside suburb. We are told at the beginning that someone has died at a school trivia night, but not who or by whose hand, and then we go back to the beginning of the school year and by degrees work our way forwards to the trivia night and the denoument. And as an aside, don’t check out the Wikipedia entry for this book if you wish to be surprised by the ending.
I listened to Big Little Lies recently in the truck and it was an easy way to pass the time, and more than that, under a pleasant surface Moriarty deals with issues with a bit of bite – date rape, domestic abuse, adultery, bullying – as well as the usual family conflicts and an amusing romance.
Before Big Little Lies I was listening to an American, old guy novel, Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land (2006), 23 hours of prostate problems and failed second marriages, as I ran to and from a job at Karalundi, an Aboriginal “community” (actually a Seventh Day Adventist mission/school with a name change) 800 km north of Perth, and the third time it’s been mentioned in these pages in the last couple of months. I had to sit at Karalundi for a day waiting for my last trailer to be empty. It’s a lovely place, green, with plenty of underground water, and neat pressed earth buildings, but there’s no community living there, just mission staff and Aboriginal students. The (white) woman running the cafe and caravan park gave me the keys to the museum – an old school building I think with three rooms of photographs. As far as I can tell, the mission closed in 1974 but reopened shortly after as a church school carrying on as before but nominally controlled by locals, presumably from Meekatharra and Wiluna.
I’ve said before I don’t read old guy books – although Rebus and Cliff Hardy and so on have their share of old guy musings – and I don’t know Richard Ford, but I was impressed by The Lay of the Land which notionally deals with three ordinary working days in the life of Frank Bascombe, fifty five, a realtor in coastal Sea-Clift NJ, but is really a stream of consciousness as Bascombe deals with recently diagnosed prostate cancer, preparations for Thanksgiving, a missing second wife who has gone back, temporarily at least, to her first husband, theoretically adult children, a surprising offer from his first wife and, as a committed Democrat, awaits the result of the court case (remember hanging chads in Florida) which determined the result of the 2000 Presidential election; all matters that kept me thinking and agreeing as I listened.
As well as I can tell from the covers, I attempt to vary my listening, so from the male American voice of The Lay of the Land it was a natural jump to the female Australian voice of Big Little Lies. I hadn’t heard of Moriarty either but apparently this is her second or third international best seller with a big budget movie underway.
The story, briefly, is that Jane, a 24 yo single mother moves to Pirriwee with her 5 yo son Ziggy, becomes friends with Madelaine who has a 5 yo (Chloe) and a 7 yo with her second husband and a 14 yo, Abigail by her previous marriage to Nathan who is now married to Bonnie and they have a 5 yo of their own. And Madelaine, and hence Jane, is friends with the beautiful Celeste, married to very well off merchant banker Perry, and they have 5 yo twins, Max and Josh; and all these 5 yo’s are starting in kinder year at Pirriwee. There are others, most amusingly the “blonde bobs”, the power mothers with identical (Julie Bishop) hairstyles who run the school, but you get the picture. On the first day, Ziggy is accused of bullying and it takes most of the novel to lay this accusation to rest. Meanwhile Jane gradually reveals to Madelaine and Celeste details of the date rape that led to Ziggy’s conception; Abigail breaks Madeline’s heart by going to live with her father and Bonnie; Celeste is the victim of ongoing violence by Perry; and Jane makes friends with the ‘gay’ owner of the local coffee shop.
The narrative pov switches between Jane, Madelaine and Celeste but at the end of each section there are also tantalising excerpts from witness statements (following the trivia night ‘murder’) which provides an interesting, multifaceted view of the action, especially when compared with the single, linear (male) viewpoint of The Lay of the Land.
The big similarity of the two books however is their focus on privileged, white, middle class suburban life. Within Big Little Lies there is a range of incomes, but only from middling to high, as you might expect in a Sydney beachside suburb, and no ethnic diversity at all. The Lay of the Land is similarly situated but interestingly, to an Australian at least, the lower classes are evident by their colour – Latino servants, female African American cooks and so on, and Ford seems to me to refer to them quite disparagingly.
As I said, the authors of both books are unknown to me, but not, according to Google, to millions of readers world-wide, and The Lay of the Land at least seems to have attracted some pretty high powered reviews. If you have the time, I recommend them both.
Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies, Penguin, 2014. Audio version: Bolinda Audio, 2014, read by Caroline Lee
Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land, 2006. Audio version: AudioGO, 2012, read by Peter Marinker