Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home in Brisbane, Australia when “the household at number six”, the heart of her life in London, “explodes’”. She is suffering a bout of pneumonia and is under the care of her neighbors and Doctor Rainbow, the son of a childhood friend. She is in her seventies and has been gone from the country of her birth for most of her adult years.
Memory, the suppression of it, the mystery of it, the fear of it and its wavering, unreliable aspects are at the core of Tirra Lirra by the River (1978).
Nora equates her memories to a globe
“suspended in my head, and ever since the shocking realization that waste is irretrievable, I have been careful not to let this globe spin to expose the nether side…Its surface is inscribed with thousands, no, millions of images. It is miraculously suspended and will spin in response either to a deliberate turn or an accidental flick. The deliberate turns are meant to keep it in a soothing half-spin with certain chosen parts to the light, but I am not an utter coward, and I don’t mind inspecting some of the dark patches… Only I like to manipulate the globe myself. I don’t like those accidental flicks”
Sick in bed and going no where fast, Nora spins her globe and examines her life.
A lot in this novel depends on Nora’s tone and character. It helps and delights that she tells her life story with dry humor, at times stoic and flamboyant in other places but never overly sentimental.
Nora appears to be one of those people who must leave their native town and country. No matter what. She felt, in her youth, stifled by the smallness of life in rural Queensland. She describes her entire childhood as a “period of waiting”, suspended in a state of becoming. To endure this period, she starts embroidering wall-hangings. But her mother is rather bossy; her sister, Grace, is judgmental. Feeling out of place, she walks and daydreams a lot.
This calm period of waiting turns to panic when much times passes and people comment on her artistic talents. At the time, she does not value her budding creativity and interprets the appreciation of her talents as a sign that she has overstayed long enough to start becoming in a place she means to flee. In desperation, she marries the rather sinister, soulless Colin and moves to Sydney where she endures another, rather painful, period of waiting. Colin forbids her to work as a dressmaker and his mother, Una, is the typical mother-in-law from hell. The unhappy marriage falls apart; Una claims Nora never learned to handle Colin. Free, childless and single, Nora will leave Sydney for London where she survives the war, excels at a career in dressmaking and perhaps towards the end of that life, finds a measure of peace.
Nora views her life as a trail of waste and and a serial of unfortunate events. She never really becomes anything, in her estimation. Though one is not sure what exactly she wanted to become. She is preoccupied, consumed even, with a desire to return to Australia during the first decade in London. The pitch of this yearning is perfect. I saw parts of my former American life, as an immigrant constantly yearning for home, in Nora’s false attempts at departure.
I was reminded also of “The City”, C.P. Cavafy’s poetic illustration of the wherever-you-go-there-you-are theme The poem begins with:
“You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.”
Perhaps, it’s a bit harsh. But when Nora’s “globe of memory has given one of its lightning spins, and is dumbfounded not only by what it shows”, she discovers a her past life is full of misjudgments and harsh pronouncements. There are painfully repressed memories that informed equally painful choices. She is flawed and ultimately she could not escape herself. The last stanza of Cavafy’s poem includes the lines: “You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore./ You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:/ there is no ship for you, / As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.”
Nora doesn’t so much as waste her life as she makes it inert for long periods of time. She downgrades it from the unrealistic Arthurian dream she thought it would be to a willful, systematic removal of a reason to live, of a joy to life. It is this and other memories long left in shadow that she bravely confronts as she convalesces. The lone matriarch of her family, she is able now to see her sister and her community in a new light.
This novella won the Miles Franklin Liteary Award in 1978. The prize is given to “published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases”. Nora’s memories and current reality are set in a rich landscape, imbued with the sub-tropical lushness of Queensland. Her life in 1930s Sydney is full of interactions with artists and bohemian types and recalls quaint harbor life. And I wonder, have Australians outgrown the age-old islander’s urge to travel? Are their artists mostly content to stay home?
Jessica Andersen’s characterization of, and her rendering of the interior life of Nora is complete and prefect in its contradictions. In most things, Nora is hot and then cold. I can imagine that it would rankle to spend long periods of time with her. I’ll probably tell her to give herself a break and to credit herself with a measure of self-actualization. Her struggles marks the beginning of a movement of women making their own way. And Nora, that counts for a whole lot!
Character, plot and structure work well and blend together nicely in Tirra Lirra by the River. Jessica Andersen’s poetic, atmospheric story is not adversely affected by her economic use of words. In fact, it works to Nora’s advantage and fits with her misguided view of a small life. A bit deceptive, a tad unreliable. I thoroughly enjoyed this gem.
I read this book as part of The Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month.