The Service of Clouds' By Delia Falconer, Picador, $19.95
'Matilde Waltzing' By Elise Valmorbida, Allen & Unwin, $16.95
Reviewer: Janet Chimonyo
16 November 1997
For their first novels, both Delia Falconer and Elise Valmorbida recount the life story of a woman who, despite considerable strengths and talents, ultimately finds herself lonely and bitter. And, like so many other contemporary writers, both set their story within a historical framework.
In Falconer’s case the period is the time prior to and encompassing World War 1 while the setting is the Blue Mountains community centred around Kootomba during its heyday as an airy, therapeutic bolt-hole from the pestilential vapors of slum-ridden Sydney.
The woman, Eureka, narrates the story of her youth and her devoted love for Harry Kitchings, an eccentric photographer who comes to the mountains to take photos of its views and who has a particular passion for clouds.
For years – she tells us from some unspecified but disillusioned moment in the future – the couple ‘step out’, however the proposal never eventuates, nor does the sex. Finding herself suddenly displaced, Eureka is not surprisingly bitter at the years squandered on Harry.
Given Eureka’s numerous hints, this doesn’t give away too much. In any case, the real energy behind Falconer’s novel lies elsewhere – in its highly poeticised use of language and its almost museum-like attention to customs and curiosities of the small community.
One of the greatest curiosities was the ‘new’ photography and Falconer details minutely the wonderment of the locals for Harry Kitchings, his equipment and his product, a fascination so quaint to today’s audience that dwelling on it runs the risk of making these people look infantile.
Falconer’s novel sings with the strange beauty and geography of the mountains, even if the laying on of period detail is sometimes excessive. However, it is the lush excesses of her language that most threaten to stifle the book.
Dense with strange literary conceits, wondrous metaphors, elaborately improbable propositions and images, Falconer’s writing is frequently as diaphanous as the clouds it lengthily describes, but too much fancy runs wild – a swirling verbal mist obscuring the more substantial drama of Eureka’s actual life.
Elise Valmorbida’s heroine is Matilde, an Italian woman who makes a comparatively late marriage and migrates to Australia with her husband as Mussolini is growing more powerful and popular.
Always her understanding is that after the Depression, after Mussolini, after the war, they will return ‘home’. They never do and so Matilde, a proud, stylish, independent woman, lives her life with one leg here, one leg there.
In time this unappeasable longing grows a barrier between her and the husband she has loved deeply and who throws himself into his new life more successfully only to die early. Children don’t ease Matilde’s sense of exile, nor does the hard-earned prosperity; these are real achievements but the Melbourne Matilde finds herself in always what remains for her an alien, hostile, ugly place.
Matilde is a particularly effective creation. Although a village girl with limited education, her intelligence gives her a depth that disables cliché. Though still so very Italian, once in Australia she stops going to Mass in reaction to the gory, punitive Catholicism taught by the village nuns and to her mother’s piety that was so preoccupied with loving God and her priest it left little time for her family.
In the end, however, the ache remains and Matilde’s yearning must surely mirror that of many exiles who succeed in transporting the body but never quite transplant the heart.
Given its strengths, Valmorbida’s story hardly needs the long prologue about St Barbara she has given it, or the italicised sections within the text in which an imaginary dog provides a scatological commentary on Matilde’s inner life. Any insights these devices provide would surely have been more effective had they been integrated into the body of the story.
My other reservation about both novels is the ever-present sense in them of a narratorial voice interpreting events and feelings. I wished their authors had resisted the rather maternal impulse to watch and guide. Better to trust the reader and let the central scenes unfold with all their heat and intimacy fresh and raw and shorn of the wisdom and hinsight. Both Eureka and Matilde are more than capable of battling it out with life directly.