Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Book Review: 'Return To Coolami' by Eleanor Dark (No 18: Classic)

Return to CoolamiFor my latest classic Australian text I picked up a copy of Eleanor Dark’s 1936 release ‘Return to Coolami’, re-released as part of Allen and Unwin’s House of Books collection. It was on the ‘recommended reads’ shelf at Berkelouw and I was pleased to have it bought to my attention: my mother, with her maiden name of Dark, has been telling me for years that we are related to Eleanor, and she would point out Dark’s plaque on the boardwalk of Circular Key when we walked over it. Alas, last year I looked up Dark’s biography, and of course Eleanor had married into a Dark family and they were from America I believe, not from Germany as was our family. I had hoped to leverage off my literary celebrity there, but it’s not to be: instead I have read my first novel from her body of work just for pleasure, and am pleased that I did.
This very much reminded me of my reading of Harrower’s ‘In Certain Circles’ in that so much of our literature from the first half of the twentieth century was consumed with analyzing the impact of the wars on those who returned and those who had waited at home. This novel focuses on three marriages of varying stages: Brett and Susan who have been married for a year, Susan’s parents Tom and Millicent who have been married for decades, and Susan’s brother Colin and his wife Margeryy who have little children and live out in the country. The novel opens with Brett and Susan arguing about the direction of their marriage before joining Tom and Millicent, who are to drive the younger couple from Sydney back to Brett’s farm Coolami. On the way they will stop overnight at Colin’s farm, before driving a second day to their destination. This is the full scope of the plot, but Dark drip feeds us information as the narrative develops: Susan has lost a baby not long after the birth and we are soon to find out that it was not Brett’s child.
The long car trip allows Dark’s characters time to reflect on their relationships and Susan has a particularly complicated recent past to contemplate. She had been in a relationship with Brett’s brother but had not been able to get past a fondness to actual love:
‘Because love still hadn’t come, but it was harder than she’d expected to retreat in good order. The tormented misery of the young man she wasn’t in love with had become in the end as strong a tyranny as love itself. She was confused by it, vaguely frightened, desperately sorry for him. But not contrite, not remorseful. Never that. She hadn’t pretended. She hadn’t promised. She had denied and still denied responsibility’.
Brett similarly has his mind on the relationship, with the spectre of his brother Jim always clouding his frank interactions with Susan:
‘He put his pipe in his pocket and stood up. “It’s no good Susan”. He looked down blackly at her impassive face and lowered lashes. “We always end up with a row – bickering, hurting each other accidentally or deliberately, insults – other things”. He paused for a moment. Each of them in the rough, pebbly ground beneath their eyes, saw a long procession of unlovely incidents – of words forged by their speaker’s pain into instruments of torture, of actions twisted with the inspired ingenuity of mental suffering, into veritable nightmares, of kisses like blows and caresses rotten with a taint of cruelty’.
Tom and Millicent worry for their children, but more notably feel a shift in their relationship as they see their youngest off to married life. They are in their late fifties and wonder what role they now play in society, no longer parents but too used to being responsible to start afresh with adventure in retirement. The fourth relationship in the novel is that of city to country, as Millicent looks back on her move from her childhood home Wondabyne to live in Sydney with city boy Tom with some regret, and envies her children who have returned to large properties in the country out of some ancestral yearning. Landscape is dramatically imagined during the travelling party’s stops from the Blue Mountains into the wider New South Wales countryside: ‘High cliffs and tangled gullies dwarfed into deceptive flatness by the great expanses round them. Savage country, all but unknown, drowned in its mysterious and ineffable blue’.
Margery and Colin’s relationship is given the least focus of the partnerships but Colin’s mental state, affected by his return from the war, provides the catalyst for the shift in dynamics at the close of the novel. Like Harrower, there is a confidence with Dark’s writing, and an intelligent understanding of the inner workings of both women and men. I thought this a very modern feeling novel, which is high praise given its 1930s release. Some of the issues raised in the portrayal of Susan are strongly feminist although of course, this period was a time of monumental change for women. In the early chapters of this novel I was concerned that I would find it hard to keep caring for the characters to finish reading, but I think the novel becomes much more engaging after the midway point, and the resolution was quite charmingly romantic. After reading this very fine novel I feel even more disappointed that I’m not descended from Eleanor’s line. It would be a very impressive lineage.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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