I see Carmel Bird around from time to time, commenting on Whispering Gums or ANZLitLovers. I imagine her as Tasmanian, which is where she was born and, I think, grew up. According to her bio in the short story collection The Babe is Wise (1987) “Carmel Bird was born in Tasmania in 1940 … [she] now lives in Melbourne and is working on a novel The Bluebird Café.” And here we are.
The copy I have, which of course I picked up second hand somewhere unrecorded, for $2, was published in New York. The copyright material mentions a Canadian edition (Penguin) but no prior publication in Australia or England. I hope it was at least distributed here.
Being cautious, I check Bird’s bio on-line (she’s still with us) and see she received The Patrick White Award in 2016. A mixed blessing. No one minds $25,000, but the award of course is for writers who have been insufficiently recognised over the course of their careers. And she’s still working. The Bluebird Café was her second novel and her eleventh, Field of Poppies, was published just two years ago.
The Bluebird Café is set in Tasmania, probably in some sort of whimsical alternative reality, I haven’t been there. There are two locations – Copperfield Historic Museum Village, a hugely successful theme park, owned by the Best family, which has replaced the suburb of Trevallyn on the cliffs above Cataract Gorge …
Copperfield is on top of Cataract Hill which overlooks the Gorge where the South Esk meets the North Esk to form the Tamar River at the city of Launceston in northern Tasmania…
The Historic Museum Village of Copperfield was inspired by the original town of Copperfield on the Welcome River in the far north-west of Tasmania at Cape Grim [map].
… and the original Copperfield, which by 1985 “had become a ghost town where only one person lived. This was a woman called Bedrock Mean”. Bedrock Mean lives in the Bluebird Café started by her grandfather, Philosopher Mean. She waits there for her daughter Lovelygod who disappeared 20 years earlier at age ten, “one of those mysterious and tragic Australian children who vanish, leaving no trace”, while her (Bedrock’s) twin brother Carillo travels the world, searching.
Among the wax figures of miners and Aborigines in the Historic Museum Village is one of Lovelygod, just two feet tall, with the sign “Lovelygod Mean, midget, born 1960, disappeared 1970. The mystery of her disappearance remains unsolved.” Visitors are invited to write down their theories.
The next character introduced is Virginia O’Day, who in the 1980s is commissioned to write a play celebrating Launceston’s new tourist mecca. Virginia grew up in Launceston and at age 18 had holidayed in Copperfield where she wrote the play The Bluebird Café Murders which “enjoyed considerable success in the West End and on Broadway”. The previous year, 1950, Bedrock and Carillo then aged 10 had holidayed at the O’Days. Virginia would not eat. She had got her weight down from 8 stone to 6 1/2 and was aiming at 6. When Bedrock and Carillo went home to Copperfield, Virginia went with them, her parents hoping a change of scenery might help. They travel by train. Of course I have to check. Current maps show rail lines along the north coast, and Bedrock remembers “the little railway in from the coast that has not run for many years”.
Copperfield – there is a minor Charles Dickens theme running through the novel – and its little railway are, I assume, made up. I’m not aware of any mining up there in the north west corner. Queenstown is further south.
The Best family, who own everything in northern Tasmania, and in particular Nancy Best, are mentioned more often than I have indicated here and may be a satirical reference to Edmund Rouse, who was for decades Tasmania’s leading businessman and owner of the Launceston Examiner, until in 1989 he was sentenced to three years gaol for attempting to bribe a politician (instead of following the more usual path of Australian businesses of offering him a high-paying sinecure).
Virginia is writing both a novel and a journal. Part two of the book, consists of her journals for that year in Copperfield; part three is the transcripts of interviews she does in the ‘present’;
Virginia: [speaking of her novel] … giving away the plot won’t stop people reading it. Everybody knows all the plots, don’t they?
Interviewer: If everybody knows all the plots, why do you think people keep reading books?
Virginia: Perhaps it’s very reassuring to keep being told the same things in different ways. And every storyteller puts the story together in a different way. It’s nice to see how it’s done each time. You can arrange plenty of surprises for the reader.
.. part four is a short interview with Virginia’s sister Rosie; part five, an even shorter piece from the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 1989 under the heading ‘Waiting for Lovelygod’; and part six is an essay by a Japanese student speculating on the causes of Lovelygod’s disapperance. These are followed by a 22 page Readers’ Guide with an alphabetic listing of terms and names used and their meanings.
I can only imagine Bird got lost in post-modern theory and somehow found a publisher who was willing to inflict it on us.
Carmel Bird, The Bluebird Café, New Directions, New York, 1990. 180 pp