Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

This short novel was first published in 1978 . I remember reading it about then and being very impressed. My recent re-read left me still very impressed but with a different realisation and thoughts about it. I did not remember ironically enough - just how much it was about memory and the need to put aside painful experience and memory in order to survive at times .However I did remember it gave me a strong sense of the survival drive of the main character, Nora, as she reminiscences and brings out the story of herself as a child, a young person, a confident career woman, and lastly as an older woman . The accompanying theme of self realisation and learning is the main thematic thrust of this novel. By comparison with other more recent writers with high reputations Anderson weaves psychological insights in illuminating prose effectively and without didacticism. It is story telling of the first order.

We meet Nora , our first person narrator ,when she is about 70 years of age . She has returned to her childhood home in Queensland after many years living and working in London. As she recovers from pneumonia brought on by her travels she is remembering people and events from her past. Her places of memory are outer Brisbane where she spent her childhood , Sydney where she lived for a few years after her marriage and London where she lived and worked until her return at the age of 70 to her childhood home. Anderson's fine writing illuminates this life and the situations with shining , economical clarity . We get to know Nora as she is growing up and can watch this progress , mistakes etc.

In fact the whole book illustrates a self realisation and insight which Nora is working through - here is just one sentence towards the end of the book which gave me a thrill when I read it . Nora is talking with a visitor , Jack, who mentions a name of someone from her past and she thinks "My globe of memory has given one of its lightning spins, and i am dumbfounded not only by what it shows, but by the fact that it has remained on the dark side for so long". A mystery is beginning to unfold in her mind and we travel with her along the path of memory. The blending of the dialogue Nora has with her visitors over the couple of weeks of her sickness and convalescence , and with her thought processes and observations is the structural basis for the novel and it all works easily and seamlessly for the reader.

Another feature of the book which delighted me is the sense of places in the book and the fine graphic descriptions thereof. Details of natural and built surroundings are an important part of memory for our narrator, thank goodness . For instance, we are treated to a wonderful picture of life in some terraces in the Woolloomoolloo area in the thirties which were home to artists, writers ,dressmakers - men and women living and working in the City of Sydney when King's Cross and the Darlinghurst areas were havens for them in a puritanical town. This is an important learning environment for Nora so that when her sad marriage ends and she sails to London she is open to new friendships and experiences. There is a note at the beginning of the book which as well as saying the characters are imaginative constructions notes "only the houses on the point are taken from life" and Anderson brings those Woolloomoolloo houses on the point to "life". I smiled when i read that information after finishing the book and am grateful for her writing about that era and those places with such sensitivity.

The evocative title ,Tirra Lirra by the River comes from the Tennyson poem The Lady of Shallot and its inclusion in the texts fits the themes of the novel very well. The Lady was required to view the beautiful Lancelot and life through a crystal mirror and Nora , lover of poetry and life learner , is shining the mirror on herself and life and getting "it" in a way. Nora at 70 is a bit curmudgeonly but likeable and along with her resilience maintains humour and an interest in people. The people in her life are well drawn too.

However the character of Nora is central to the story and is a perfect characterisation. This ability to get to the heart of the female persona with empathy but without sentimentality is a feature of first class female writers. In the Australian context I think of Olga Masters, Elizabeth Jolley and Amy Witting - contemporary with Anderson who are a group to conjure with in this regard. They all published in their later years around about the 1960s to 80s and signified a particular flowering of literature in Australia . Their success and abilities co-incided with the womens liberation movement of that time and I believe the social change was an factor in their success and opportunities - their high literary abilities were strictly their own however. It was just fortuitous in time.

Whatever, Tirra Lirra is a strong, evocative , poetically written book of special insight into character,relationships of a wide range ,perceptions, suburban life styles and settings - which has stood the test of time for me.


Becky (Page Turners) said...

You have written a lovely review of this book. I tried to read it some months ago now for a book club but found it very difficult to get into the story and I stopped reading it before I had finished it. Your review has made me think that I might need to give it anoth go at some point, no doubt there are many wonderful things about the book I will hopefully enjoy. I think the problem was that I was taking too long to warm to Nora.

John Kennedy said...

I had not read this before, and was very glad to be introduced to it. My one reading does not allow me to analyse it with the depth you display, Faye, but I did feel as I read that I was encountering a beautifully structured and highly evocative work. For me the great achievement was in evoking time and place, particularly Sydney in the 1930s, which I did not experience, and Queensland in the 1970s, which I did experience. There is exceptional vividness, and it is very convincing.

As you indicate, the book is memorable for small touches as well as for its overall achievement. One that really struck me was what I think is the only line attributed to the woman that Nora's husband insensitively brings home, announcing that he intends to divorce Nora and marry her. The women comments that she would never spend the husband's money on homosexuals, an allusion to Nora's friends, some of whom she helps out when they are down on their luck. The line encapsulates meanness, pettiness, and a defensive sense of guilt.

Thank you for an interesting review and for encouraging me to read a fine novel.

Faye said...

Dear Becky,
I hope you can have another go at the book - it is "a quiet achiever" of a story in a way and one that almost creeps up on you.
Thank you for your friendly comments

Faye said...

Dear John,
I am glad you enjoyed it. It does resonate with me . The interweaving of atmospherics re place are so cleverly done to be almost not noticeable . A tree here , some bird song there , the vernacular of the locals - she paints a picture very easily and lightly .
Of the many vignettes/incidents which bring out the character presentation and the atmosphere - I think of the time Nora gets up on her own to take a bath against the Doctors advice - so small an occurrence really but we get a sense of the daring and the way she has lived her life .She is cantankerously old but a very real persona . I think this is difficult to do well.

I think the scenes at the London house are good too - the characters there are real to me.
The story of the abortion experience was very strong for instance .
But then there is Nora's thinking about her old adversaries - her sister and husband, for instance with a little more softness - as she ponders scenes from her past and their lives.

I agree with you about Sydney and Brisbane - as mentioned I particularly identified with the Sydney background scenes - subtle historic record. Also the dialogue with the new wife to be which you quote
powerful , brief and complex.