I came to these two short novels by Scottish born, Australian writer Helen Hodgman with no expectations at all. At first I found the voice a little unusual, but certainly intriguing and very readable. Blue Skies is a novella of post-natal depression and domestic stagnation which results in suicide and murder.
“The beach waited in its early-morning perfection just for me and the odd dog-exerciser. When the sun rose higher, the pale yellow sand became an almost desert blaze. The black rocks crouched like primitive worship stones, antipodean Stonehenges.
Later, when the noon blaze subsided, the local women came down. Those nearest could walk laden with bright beach-bags and babies, carting the many necessities for enjoying an hour in the open. Those from further up the road would drive, the wheels of their small economical second-cars spurting up dust sprays and rutting the sand at the edge. Most people gathered together towards the end of the beach. The hitherto mysterious rocks were then pressed into domestic service, their flat tops used as tables, their crevices as storage spaces for cold drinks and for keeping bits of clothing out of the sand.”
Finding Blue Skies to be very well written, with its atmosphere of unsettling claustrophobia, that unusual voice pulled me right in. In the first novel of the two we find ourselves in Tasmania – where a young wife and mother finds the empty afternoons hang heavily, the clock always reading three o’clock. She watches her new next door neighbour Olive mow the grass, with indifference, take the baby down to the beach where she listens to the chatter of the other young mums who gather by the sea.
“I stopped going to the beach.
I concentrated my efforts not on airing the baby but on abandoning it. By being polite and behaving well, I could buy myself bits of free time. The person I had mostly to be nice to was my husband’s mother. This was because she lived at a pram-pushable distance and loved looking after the baby. Not every day: that wouldn’t have been right. But she was good for two days a week.
Tuesdays and Thursdays. On these days I could take off and forget the street, the beach and three o’clock in the afternoon.”
Two days a week the narrator travels by bus to the local town, where she shakes off the mantle of married young mother, for clandestine meetings, lunch, drinking and posing for photographs she stumbles through her life with seeming unconcern. On Tuesdays she sees Jonathon, who she used to work for, on Thursdays it’s Ben the photographer – married to her best friend Gloria. Hodgman brilliantly recreates a sun drenched sensuality and domestic danger. There is a pervading sense of impending disaster, as this troubled young mother lives only for Tuesdays and Thursdays, encountering a predatory bus driver along the way.
At home, the young mother plays the part of dull James’s wife and Angelica’s mum to the best of her ability, but she views her little family as belonging more to her mother-in-law than to her. Next door Olive continues to cut the grass; the clock still says three o’clock.
Blue Skies runs to only about 105 pages, and so it’s quite possible for me to say too much, it is perhaps obvious that the young woman at the centre of this memorable novella is suffering from post-natal depression, although this term is never used. All I will say is that the ending is bizarrely shocking – and memorable.
Jack and Jill is just a few pages longer than Blue Skies, and its themes are as equally unsettling. Hodgman won the Somerset Maugham prize for this short novel in 1978.
“…the advantage would be all on her side. Jack had done her so much harm already. She could draw on the credit for a lifetime.”
It opens with a shocking scene; a small child left alone with her dying mother, is found several days later by her father, in a terrible state while her mother lies now dead in another room. The child is Jill, her father Douggie, after the death of his wife, the two live a hand to mouth sort of existence on their New South Wales outback property. The time scale of this novel is something like thirty years, taking us from the depression ridden era to the changing times of the 1960’s.
When Jill is still an adolescent Jack arrives looking for work, and Douggie takes him on. From here on in, begin all of Jill’s problems. It is the start of an uncomfortable relationship, certainly it’s no boy meets girl romance. Jill is attracted and repelled by Jack – horrified by her first violent sexual experience when she is too young, and Jack is selfish, predatory and obsessive – she naturally turns away from him. As Jack goes off to war he says –
“You’ll be sorry you treated me this way when I’m dead.’ He flung her aside and marched away, vowing to love her forever.
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ he yelled back at her. ‘So there.’
Jill picked up her book and thoughtfully squashed a line of ants that had strayed between the pages.”
Jill finds herself influenced hugely by Miss Thomas, a teacher who sees a lot of potential in Jill, and so while Jack is off at the war, Jill is at university. Jack returns from the war, confined to a wheelchair – still crazy about Jill. Jill runs away to England, where she discovers Barnaby – the child hero of the series of successful children’s books she writes. She sails home, writing to Jack from aboard ship.
“She was writing to Jack, telling him how she was coming back to him after all because – east, west, home’s best, and better the devil you know. Keep it simple she thought.
She airmailed the letter in Bombay, which seemed a suitably overwrought and exotic place from which to seal her fate, and settled down to enjoy the trip.”
Back in Australia Jill enters into a sexless marriage – where she holds the balance of power, writing her Barnaby books while Jack lives in hope, carving wooden crucifixes. The Raelene arrives, a fan of Jill’s books she offers to help with some secretarial tasks – and stays – her presence threatening to change everything.
The ending of Jack and Jill is also a surprise – but for different reasons to Blue Skies – but it is every bit as memorable.
When I looked this book up on Goodreads – before starting to read it – I was nearly put off reading it by the lacklustre responses it seemed to have collected from other readers. I wonder why that is – because I think Helen Hodgman is a very good writer, she surprises her reader’s and that is something I appreciate. True, her characters are not very likeable – that never really bothers me, I actually often find that a reason for really liking a novel or story – unlikeable characters so often much more believable and certainly more interesting than likeable ones. I’ve done a bit of online searching, and found very little about Helen Hodgman, though it does appear she wrote a few other novels. They will quite definitely be worth checking out. Hogdman’s landscape is recognisably Australian, and that from someone who has never been there, and stopped watching neighbours in the 1990s – but I am a sucker for a strong sense of place. Perhaps some of you will know something more about Helen Hodgman and fill me in – but for me she appears to be a really very good writer who has been forgotten. Perhaps she is better known down under – I hope so.