Broadcasting legend Elizabeth Alley reviews Loving Sylvie, the gorgeous, ephemeral new novel by Elizabeth Smither.
A bride is rowed across a grey-green lake to her wedding. She rehearses her new name, “Sylvie Grace Taverner,” as the waters lap the boat. There’s a black swan and a flotilla of ducks. The oarsman is her grandfather Kit, and waiting on the dock is her grandmother Isobel, clutching the bridal bouquet in her hands “like a spring cabbage”.
What’s not to like about that as a beginning? While for a brief moment you might expect it’s the stuff from which gothic mysteries are made, there are no bodies lurking in the waters, nor rogues in the undergrowth. Instead, the only tangled web is the one Smither weaves through the inner lives of three generations of women, drawing from the depths of her startlingly vivid imagination. The chaps, though interesting in themselves, are definitely lesser characters.
To describe this as a ‘literary’ novel is not to suggest it is out of reach for any reader. Far from it. But it’s a book that could only have been written by someone whose life has been filled to every crevice with books and beautiful things – paintings, objects, lasting images, glimpses and influences. All those years Smither spent as a New Plymouth librarian, and her habit of storing away things that are significant to her, have been put to good account. Anyone who’s read her beautiful Commonplace Book, with its extraordinary miscellany of extracts and incidents, phrases and memories, will understand how these form the linkages that enrich her fiction – as well as her poetry. The Colette novels, collected by Isobel for her daughter Madeleine, and then resurrected for her granddaughter, are recurring references throughout as motifs for a possible life – but so too is the work of Henry James, or Levi Strauss, Dickens, and the Brontes. As well as favourite writers, favourite pictures form part of the rich background to past and current lives. Intricate botanical details, the sound of feet on small gravel: nothing is too small to become an object of interest, and thus part of Smither’s lyrical, alluring way of making things matter.
Sylvie has been raised by her two gentle grandparents Isobel and Kit. Her solo mother Madeleine absconded early in her life to Paris and Madame Recamier’s bookshop where she lives a fey, wafting kind of life largely ignorant, and certainly neglectful, of the duties of motherhood. She had “never been able to put her life in order as she had never seen herself as the centre of it”. Sylvie doesn’t pine for her. Her own marriage to Ben occasions the addition to this trio of women of the mother-in-law from hell, Cora Taverner. No-one is good enough for her son. She has, she thinks, “received nothing from life that corresponded to what she was expecting”. She is bitter, isolated in her determined unpleasantness, and judgmental that Ben has married a woman whose reputation as a teenage tearaway hasn’t been forgotten. (Sylvie’s grandmother, it’s worth noting, was watchful of her night-time escapades – would follow her to make sure she was safe – but never confronted her.)
Neither mother attends Sylvie and Ben’s wedding. Cora had expected Isobel to block the marriage, and believes her son was “bewitched” into the union. She laid the faults of her son “at his feet, like the bottom layers of a dry stone wall”. This egregious lack of maternal manners – or even affection – causes a deep resentment that simmers under the surface.
The narrative moves between Auckland, Paris and Melbourne, where Madeleine lives during a short-lived marriage after she leaves Paris. Some of these structural dislocations become unsettling. Just as you get to grips with the recent past or the present day, an intervention back to the early past requires a bit more of the reader than the narrative is prepared to give. But Smither is a minute observer of social habit, capturing the way Parisians appreciate the feel and fall of fabric, or the way a debate unfolds, or how Melburnians talk, or lounge, or use public transport. She’s equally good at feelings. Isobel becomes ill, and one of the most plangent parts of the novel traces her passage towards the end of her life. Madeleine returns. The sensitivity with which she portrays the preparations being made by those around her to help her reach that end, are heartbreaking. It is this death, evoked with such empathy, which becomes the catalyst by which the remaining women eventually achieve a reconciliation, in a manner of speaking.
While Sylvie and her relationship to these women remains central to the narrative, it is Isobel who is its most interesting character. She, who has held their lives together, is also a compulsive spring-cleaner of bookshelves, tenderly and regularly taking down each of her many thousands of books, dusting each before replacing it. Shame on most of us. This tactility seems typical of the intricate detail on which this book is based. Given such a fine grain, there are one or two mistakes that an editor might have picked up: e.e. cummings for example, is always written in lowercase. The most significant aspect of that strange Parisian gourmet speciality the ortolan, is not the way it is sharply carved into three, but that it is eaten whole under big white cloths, worn on the head.
The novel is almost entirely introspective. Conversations are more often reported on than verbally expressed. Their lives are gossamer lives, where much is misjudged, or regretted, or just missed, and where perceptions are often left hanging. But all this beauty, all this gorgeousness of image and detail, all the surprising metaphors and pithy phrases – they give an ephemeral quality to the story, an elusiveness that is seductive, but sometimes subsumes the significance of the characters and the different worlds they inhabit. Isobel, on a quiet afternoon, instead of accepting a lunch date chooses to read reviews, then search the shelves for the relevant books while the points were still clear, trying to decide “if the critic has a clear palate, like a wine taster, for enmity is often disguised and obscured by initial praise”. She prefers small, reflective ideas like this than big dramatic events. She has talked in the past about “leaving one’s fingerprints on everything” and in this book there are many of them.
There is much to praise in this novel. But context can be too vividly imagined. Against a background of so much sensual imagery lives can seem diminished, overcome. Smither is certainly one of our most startling observers of the human condition, one of our most original and elegant wordsmiths. It gladdens a grandmother’s heart. It is a beautiful read. But its framework, its structure, seems too slight to support all that it’s called on to carry. In this poetic novel, the characters are more friendly ghosts, than storytellers demanding we hear them out.
Loving Sylvie by Elizabeth Smither (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available at Unity Books.