Comments, Reviews, Interviews

 

 

Patrick White Literary Award 2016

This annual award for an outstanding writer with a substantial body of work is the legacy of Patrick White who donated funds from his 1973 Nobel Prize to support his fellow writers. The prize is administered by the Perpetual Trustees. In 2016 the judges selected Carmel as the winner.

From the Patrick White Award Judges’ Citation:

“Bird’s imagination is extraordinarily wide-ranging and her fiction consequently creates a world that criss-crosses textual, intellectual and geographical boundaries. Her philosophical enquiry gives us stories that blend genres and also question faith and spirituality as well as personal, family and local history. Using elements of the Gothic, fantasy and fairy tale as easily as realism, Bird can be surreal, quirky and macabre, but also humorous, humane and warm. Critics have noted these qualities shared with other celebrated writers such as Angela Carter and Thea Astley, and at least one has identified a ‘rogue quality’ in her work reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But Bird’s voice is truly original: witty, stylish and allusive, it invests trust in the reader to appreciate her literary and cultural references.”

 


 

Review of Family Skeleton

The mordantly witty Family Skeleton, supposedly related from a wardrobe by one of them, is Carmel Bird's ninth novel, and as vibrant and off-beat as those that have happily gone before. The O'Day family, its fortune made as funeral directors, especially to Melbourne's rich, and latterly from the death-driven theme park Heavenly Days, lives in the mansion Bellevue, built for them in Toorak in 1933.

The patriarch, rakish Edmund Rice O'Day, has expired in the arms of his mistress. He is survived by Margaret, the distant cousin (a "medical" rather than a "funeral" O'Day) whom he married long ago. From the tapestry room in Bellevue, Margaret casts a cool eye on the generations of her family as they disport themselves in her gardens. Deep into her 70s, Margaret feels the not unpleasant compulsion to compose a journal-cum-memoir, The Book of Revelation.

The novel entwines the voices of the sardonic, presumably female skeleton narrator and the not always charitable observations Margaret writes of family and acquaintances, for instance of her daughter-in-law Charmaine, who "sprang from a diplomatic family that has been turned into a family of wealthy dry-cleaners". Charmaine's children now number four – Orson, Oriane, Orlando, and most recently Ophelia. This strikes her grandmother as an ill-omened name, which indeed it proves to be. For such fashion Peaches Geldof is blamed – "she had set the benchmark high".

Into this commotion arrives a distant, but determined and disruptive relative from the US, Dr Doria Fogelsong, who is writing an expansive history of the O'Days. Margaret is at once worried and alert: "Doria was the archetypal stranger who rides into town … the harbinger of fate." Doria will overhear the indiscretions of children, probe the meaning of old photographs and find time to give the quilt made in Van Diemen's Land by two female O'Day convict ancestors to the museum in Hobart. It is perhaps no surprise that one of Margaret's sons-in-law will suspect Doria of being a blackmailer.

Bird marshals a large and preening cast from Melbourne's professional ranks – psychiatrist, solicitor, bibulous poet who follows several real-life predecessors into death by drowning, gay parish priest and family doctor, besides "jolly fat aunts and mean skinny ones". Astringent fun is had in the portrayals of each of them, as we move between the dissecting gazes of the two women telling their parts of the story. Family scandals are rehearsed – Edmund's philandering since his school days, the mystery of why his sister Marina interrupted a dance at Bellevue by jumping from the first floor – while for Margaret, the most shocking of them all is unexpectedly revealed. This is the metaphorical skeleton, so long unsuspected, at the heart of the novel.

Throughout, Bird's touch is light as she deploys the motifs of butterflies for weddings and funerals and the small brown suitcase that appears each year under the Christmas tree because "there are sad children somewhere"; imagines the daily epigraphs, his jocular remarks on death, that Edmund O'Day delivered each day for his employees. As the narrative quickens to the climactic events of Margaret's last hours, Bird's tone darkens, but she never loses the wry response to the mess people haplessly and indulgently make of things. The Family Skeleton maintains its energy and power of surprise literally to the last lines. This is one of Bird's most accomplished and enjoyable fictional escapades.

Peter Pierce, Sydney Morning Herald

 


 

Review of My Hearts Are Your Hearts

In one of the reflective essays that complement her new collection of stories, My Hearts Are Your Hearts, Carmel Bird likens short story writing to the art of the conjuror who takes ‘coloured silk handkerchiefs, pull[s] them all in to make a ball, and then, with a flourish, open[s] them up as a fullblown rose’. This charming metaphor suggests not only Bird’s understanding of the subtlety and skill required to create memorable short stories, but also her delight in playing the role of magician. While her essays provide insights into the origins, crafting, and intended effects of the twenty stories in this collection, they also brim with exuberance about the process of writing, especially its often unconscious or ‘mysterious’ nature.

One of Australia’s more prolific and renowned authors, Bird clearly hasn’t lost her enthusiasm and sense of wonder as she enters the imaginative world of fiction. It is an experience she’s keen to share with her readers. As one of her essays has it: ‘[t]he stories in this collection are really intended to please and entertain the reader.’ Of course, it is not that simple. Though the stories are often characterized by a lightness of touch – the use of wry humour, arch asides to the reader, and a flat, affectless tone of voice, as though the whole damned mess of existence is being observed at a knowing remove – we are always conscious that for Bird questions of morality, ethics, and power genuinely matter.

These are stories about the desires and fears at the heart of relationships and communities explored over a wide range of subjects, including a young woman selling toothpaste door-to-door, marriage breakdowns, the ambivalent lessons of history, opportunities for women, art, landscape, sexuality, education, social class, and organ transplants, as well as Bird’s beloved Tasmania as a site of both beauty and darkness. The combination of seeming lightness and moral seriousness is evident in one of my favourite stories in the collection, ‘Monkey Business’. It begins with satirical digs at the extravagance of a child’s birthday party, where an increasingly bewildered monkey is required to perform for an affluent, morally obtuse audience: ‘Cute! Cute!’ is the narrator’s mocking refrain. Gradually, cleverly, the story widens its scope to reveal the damage done to a child and a marriage, and to expose a heartless culture that often denies the integrity and dignity of both humans and animals.

Other stories gain their emotional and moral force by unsettling a calm narrative voice. In the ‘The Legacy of Rita Marquand’, for example, a matter-of-fact tone is disrupted by the use of a disturbing metaphor. The moment occurs when a young Catholic woman, Dolores, entangled in the forbidden world of sexuality, dreads having to divulge ‘toads of truth in the dark box of the confessional’. That single, confronting metaphor suggests both the ugliness of a punitive religious creed and, in its eruption into the narrative, an enactment of the sometimes hidden but nonetheless pervasive power of the church. If important moral questions give coherence to the collection – not that a collection of stories is obliged to be thematically cohesive – I am also drawn to the unexpectedness of many of the stories, which often meander, digress, circle, or elide as a means of enacting the arbitrariness of life.

The narrator of ‘From Paradise to Wonderland’ claims that she’s ‘here to tell you that sometimes it’s the destination that matters, and you can stick the journey up your jumper’, but she ultimately enjoys revealing the surprises of the trip and its unexpected ending. By contrast, the ‘destination’ of the story ‘Waiting to be Seated’ evokes the horror of a particular historical event. You will have to read it to find out how Bird ‘flourishes’ this poignant conjurer’s trick.

The stories are also linked by their refusal to lecture or pontificate. Like all good storytellers, Bird gives us the pleasure and the challenge of working out possible meanings for ourselves. The standout example for me of this suspension of judgement is the formally ambitious tale ‘My Beloved Is Mine and I Am His’, which deals with the damage caused to a young victim of sexual abuse. Bird writes in the relevant essay that she was shocked by what she had written. The story certainly shocked me, not because of the moral panic often generated by this subject, but because of its altogether more discomfiting conclusion.

Like many of the stories in the collection, ‘My Beloved Is Mine and I Am His’ should be read with an open mind and a generous heart. To this end – the complication of human experience – the stories sometimes debunk the wish-fulfilment fantasies assumed in the fairy tale genre. As the narrator of the story ‘Back to the Womb’ slyly reminds us, ‘That’s not a happy ending, is it?’ But whether the underlying vision of the stories in My Hearts Are Your Hearts is amused, acerbic, wistful, or tender, all of them are thoroughly engaging. That is both a confirmation of Bird’s disarmingly modest statement of intention and a remarkable aesthetic achievement. Fifteen of these stories have already been published, and it is a pleasure to have them gathered in one book, to enjoy what Bird insists, with unabashed sentiment, are tales that have arisen from ‘the core’ of her writer’s heart.

Susan Midalia, Australian Book Review

 


 

Review of My Hearts Are Your Hearts and also Fair Game

It must be 30 years since I first came across Carmel Bird. Gerald Murnane whom I revered had written a blurb – was it for Cherry Ripe? – in which he said she was his kind of writer. I didn’t believe that then, but I would qualify my sense of its accuracy now, in all ways but one. Carmel Bird, like Gerald Murnane is a literary artist to her fingertips. She is a writer who believes – and they are rarer than they should be – in composition in the musical phrase.

She is a maker of fiction in the tradition of Joyce and before him of his master Flaubert who writes prose that has the precision of poetry and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak because she knows how to make it sound. For Carmel Bird, as for Ezra Pound, the emotion is in the cadence and so is the high and mighty moral vindication of art.

Now we have two books, one miniature, the other medium length, and they contain most of what we know and need to know about the telling and shaping of stories. One is Fair Game, a long essay in Julian Davies’ handsome and noble series of mini-books. This one is about butterflies (which adorn its cover) and Tasmania where Bird hails from and which her fiction circles round and returns to over and over. Here is a ruminative example of Carmel Bird’s voice, apparently weaving the wind but with touches of a different order of bewitchment.

“I haven’t travelled so very far from the butterflies on the postcard. They seem to be unwanted in England but they are welcomed in Van Diemen’s Land for they are going to be, on the one hand, the wives and mothers of the colony and on the other, the servants, and also ladies of the night. In their garish finery as they flutter across the ocean, they might be dancing at a glittering ball, or decorating the lounges of a bordello. They don’t look much like servants, wives or mothers. In fact they are a pretty plain statement of the butterfly as signifier of the labia and vagina. It also means the soul and resurrection. But in the case of the Fair Game Girls, I think the labia will do.”

There is a swooping audacity in this for all its conversational air.

And so it is for the marvellous stories in My Hearts are Your Hearts which defy paraphrase because their musicality is so integral and so intricate yet they consistently stun the mind and touch the heart.

“Her Voice Was Full of Money and They Were”. How’s that for the title of a story that would enchant…I don’t know…Guy Davenport? Literary education alerts us to something about Gatsby and then we get an old English mistress discoursing from the shallow well we imagine of her experience about the phenomenon of the hit and run driver.

Okay, Daisy, Gatsby, Tom Buchanan and his girlfriend. Before we know where we are, we are off – fleetingly, dazzlingly – on a kind of re-enactment and revision, the young, the beautiful. The death and the dazzle and events – that essence of the plotline – in a story that staggers the mind.

Just before it we get the story of two sisters, one who dies terribly in defiance of all moral convention, and the other who cannot tell the terrible truth of what has occurred. “The Legacy of Rita Marquand” is a story is full of incidental Catholic charity and whatever its quality of mercy was and yet it is full of the marbled coldness of a lost world which is well lost though Bird’s art gives it a marvellous remembrance.

These stories have a grace and an inevitability that makes you want to retell them or allude to them because they waste nothing. A woman of 40 meets an older woman on a plane. The 40 year old has the prospect of happiness before, the old woman the reality of grief. Then the younger woman recognises the dead daughter in law is the girl, Japanese as it happens, later a famous photographer, who gave her a friendship box that contained the words “Think of Me”. And she does.

These stories are as light as air, as rapid as anecdote, but with an extraordinary grace of music. In one way they are like those Borgesian equations of storytelling that seem to contain multitudes and sagas yet leave nothing but the outline. But in Bird’s case the economy seems so exactly paced that we believe in the absolute reality, at once mundane and musical, in a world that is exactly adjusted to the grain of the storyteller’s voice. Nor does she have Borges’ particular penchant for fiction as the algebraic reduction of a yarn that is told.

A Carmel Bird story is more like this. Two young girls are pictured together in a photo from 1955. The one who did not go off on a scholarship to an Anglican boarding school hears that the one who was sent home in disgrace for having done things with boys wants to see her. They are now 60 odd. She had pined for her friend long ago but one letter was answered. In fact, the girl with the bigger future fell into the hands of an Anglo-Catholic priest who quoted the Song of Songs to her and told her that his wife wanted her help in giving him what he deserved. She becomes wet, she loves it all. He takes off all of her clothes and then all of his until they are left in nothing but their socks and he puts herself inside her and they have sex on the foxskin rug. He also has a habit in pointing a gun at her in his enthusiasm.

One night, after he has ceased to see her like this because his wife has conceived again, she is walking round the country town and two boys who reckon she’s been having it off with the vicar put the hard word with her. They smell of sweat and rubbish and rot and she revels in it. Clumsily they put themselves in her, one after another. She’s found out and the priest denounces her and has her expelled though his wife, voicelessly, is sympathetic.

The girl can’t cry, she goes off, a bit later, to Queensland. She marries a man who abuses her. She has kids who neglect her and scarcely care for her. She never ceases to care for the priest. She writes to him after 15 years or more and he writes back full of lasciviousness and fervour. His wife has left him and they resume their great love. Biblical and sensuous. He comes to her and is all fire. After a time, some priests in sunglasses come and whisk him away. She’s pregnant but loses the baby.

The Archbishop is beside himself and treats her like dirt. Eventually the priest is defrocked but escapes prison. People shrug: surely it was at least carnal knowledge. The old girlfriend, the stay-at-home, says the priest should be locked up. The woman who has been abused, however, says to her that she just hopes the priest will say he’s sorry and then she’ll take him and God’s love will sucker them: love is as strong as death.

“My Beloved is Mine and I Am His” is the longest story in this book at 26 pages. In a shorter one, “Perhaps That Bird was Wise” a girl sits at her mother’s deathbed, there is a watch of fool’s gold that goes tick tock and time is fast. In the T.S. Eliot poem the bird says humankind cannot bear very much reality. The mother says everything happens to everyone. She likes the story of the chairs of the seven dwarfs but what does happily ever after mean? Later, after the mother dies, Allegra, the heroine, finds those chairs in a country antique shop. The little watch tick tocks on. Happily ever after. The bird was right.

Carmel Bird reduces the critic to repeating notes taken as he tries to hold on these fugitive breathtaking stories.

Read them. Read them aloud. They have the ring of truth.

Peter Craven, The Age

 


 

Sydney Review Of Books

Interview link...     Carmel Bird: ‘Flying About The Place’