I committed myself to the Miles challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books. Despite moving interstate, and then overseas and starting a new job in a new country, I was determined to meet my commitment, and I’m very happy that I succeeded. Not only did I read all 6 books, I wrote reviews for them as well. Participating in the AWW Challenge, I found myself searching for new books to read and in the process discovered some brilliant women authors whose work I had never read before, and also was able to read new works by authors who I already knew and admired. I encountered a host of vibrant characters: there’s Meggie Tulloch, the courageous fish gutting girl, with the flaming red hair, in Amanda Curtin’s Elemental; the aging Ruth who hears a tiger huffing and panting her living room, in Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest; Harry the Victorian dairy farmer, who has an affinity for bird watching, in Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds; the collection of short stories that convey the cultural differences between Australia and Cambodia, and highlights attitudes to life, relationships, death, superstitions and sex, in Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia; orphans Anna and Stephen Quayle and their interaction with middle class North Shore socialites, the Howard family, in post-war Sydney, in Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles; and young Lily, an outsider, who is mesmerised by the Trentham family and the artistic community they create in their home, in Emily Bitto’s The Strays. These characters and their experiences have travelled with me over this past year and reading their stories was a richly rewarding experience, one that I intend to repeat next year.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read such an evocative, richly woven story that drew me into the depth of the pages so convincingly that I felt I was experiencing the life of the character in Technicolor.
Elemental is the story of Meggie Tulloch, a Scottish lass from Roanhaven, who promises that she will never resign herself to the harsh life of the cold, wind-blown fishing village that generations of her family were born into and never left. She promises herself that she will never carry a man on her back from the shore to the fishing boats so that his socks may remain dry.
We first meet Meggie as an old woman who, sensing she is dying, decides to write selected stories of her life as a gift for her granddaughter, Laura. Meggie’s story is one of love found and lost and of family and secrets that are fiercely hidden from prying eyes but that live on, eating away at the hearts of those who carry their knowledge. Meggie’s life is about many things but one element that stood out to me is her remarkable strength and endurance: the enduring determination in her young heart to follow her dreams and leave Roanhaven and venture into the world, taking her from the icy cold winds at the top of the world to the endless blue skies and scathing heat of Fremantle, in Western Australia; the physical endurance of fingers eaten and disfigured by salt through her working as a fish gutting girl on the Shetland Isles; the endurance to keep going in the face of despair at the loss of so many people that she loves; and the endurance to overcome her fears and open her heart to the joys that life delivers like sunshine on a rainy day. Spanning several generations, Elemental highlights the strength of women, their capacity for love and friendship, laughter and forgiveness, and just getting on with things in a world dominated by men, because that’s how it’s always been.
Elemental is a testament to Amanda Curtin’s ability to turn words into beautiful, evocative and haunting lines of prose. Contributing to the success of this book is the vivid characterisation and voice of Meggie as she tells her story. The depth of Curtin’s historical research is evident and this has allowed her to create the rich background against which the story is told. The use of Scottish, Doric and Shetland words enhance the sense of connection to time and place, bringing Meggie and her family members to life. There is a succinctness to the writing that drives the narrative forward and each sentence has been weighed and considered, shaped by the sharpness of an editor’s eye, resulting in prose that flows, and rolls, and swells. It’s magic.
Elemental by Amanda Curtin. Published by UWA Publishing.