An Unremarkable Life?

December 16, 2011

 Rosalie Ham, There Should Be More Dancing, North Sydney: Vintage, 2011

Reviewed by Mike Heald

Rosalie Ham’s third novel, There Should Be More Dancing, is centred upon an almost eighty-year-old woman, Margery Blandon, who has taken herself to the very top floor of a Melbourne hotel in order to throw herself to her death. The action of the novel proceeds as a series of flashbacks, which reveal how Margery has come to this suicidal position. Although the novel has a suburban setting, therefore, the characters and narrative are framed by a situation which is anything but mundane.

One of my strongest impressions from reading this novel is one of a deep humaneness. It struck me that the years writers spend developing their craft enable them to embody issues in the specifics of our lived experience, so that one encounters, in a novel, not abstract argument, but manifest significance. Rosalie Ham’s skill allows her to present a world which is both faithful to the reality with which we are familiar, yet also expressive. This takes her work beyond mere mirroring, and makes it an achievement which is both aesthetic, and ethical: an accomplishment of the soul, if you like. When we feel ourselves, for example, finding sympathy for Judith, Marge’s rather devious, manipulative daughter, it is a moment in which our generosity is, if not extended by art, then at least exercised, strengthened.

Accomplishments of ethics appear in acutely short supply, at present, in Australian society. Ham’s novel focuses many troublesome issues in recent and contemporary Australian life, as they arise in the day to day lives of the characters. They are often encountered at a comic angle, but this does not dull the blade of satire. John Howard is present, for example, in the form of a signed photograph hanging in Marge’s house, which the carer (interesting!) re-hangs upside down. Finally the picture falls, perhaps deliberate victim to the wind: ‘Bang, tinkle-tinkle, and the photo of our Honourable ex-Prime Minister was in a hundred pieces all over my lounge room floor. I rushed out to tell her, but she just said, ‘Good riddance. He was a mean-spirited old wowser.’ (293)

Refugee and migrant issues also rear their heads, often through a family of Muslim neighbours, the Ahmeds. Once again, the muddled perceptions of many white Australians find their voice in comic form. Here is Marge, for example, musing on her flatmate, Florence: ‘Goodness knows what the Ahmeds think of her. I heard her call out ‘Shalom’, but they ignored her. According to Florence, shalom means ‘hello’ in Arab. It was in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, she claims, but I can’t remember it.’ (297)

One of the deepest problems of present day Australian society most central to this story is economic: the rapid rise of house prices. Ham dramatizes the possible social impacts of this dynamic, in that Marge’s children see the glittering prize of realizing the asset of her home, and this is portrayed as an almost irresistible force of inter-generational brutality. It is not simply portrayed as if the children are evil. The shift is cultural, and the way that such factors enter the social milieu is traced. Thus the almost inevitable harm caused by inhumane financial policies is realistically and powerfully revealed.

The suburban setting and characters of this novel may suggest that the great and abiding questions of human existence are not within its purview. In fact, they are at the heart of its concerns. Just as Margery’s suicide remains imminent throughout the narrative, the crucial event in her earlier life is the death of her sister, Cecily, as a child, the devastating effect this had on her mother, and the way it has affected her upbringing. The older Margery often addresses her reflections to the deceased Cecily, and around the middle of the book, a powerful scene occurs as Marge remembers being jolted from her sense, long after Cecily’s death, that her sister was still beside her. She has gone out looking for her son, Morris:

Bougainvillea bushes burned on the verandahs of the houses edging the park, the dewy air smelled of jasmine, and Mr Calabria’s fat grapes hung through the trellis over his front path. Magpies chortled from the gums, and the little blue-and-brown jenny wrens skipped low past Margery’s hem. Cecily was there, as ever, beside her in her school dress, her pale hair held back and to the side with a white ribbon. All around her tiny insects buzzed, their wings alight. She turned and said, ‘Isn’t it a lovely morning,’ but it wasn’t Cecily. It was Morris, a freckle-faced lad in shorts and a hand-knitted jumper. Margery’s knees went from under her and she folded like wet cardboard and lay in the green palm of the soft grass, gazing up. Somewhere far off, a million tiny bells were ringing, and above her streaks of faint white clouds reached across the pale morning sky, and something inside her cramped…

Later, alone on her bed with the bells echoing in her head, her chest thick with the weight of her labouring heart and a pain like tearing flesh, she finally knew Cecily could not be found in a room or a street, that these places were vacant. (175-6)

Again, technical skill plays a crucial role in a writer’s ability to persuade the reader that the depth and mystery she wishes to claim exists in our lives is real, rather than a rhetorical effect. Ham has integrated a passage like this, which is both lyrical and also, with it’s intimations of a mysterious caring (‘the green palm of the soft grass’) spiritual, very convincingly into the texture of her character’s life. Ham’s complex yet fluent handling of narrative perspective also plays a large role here. In this way, the writing establishes the continuity of the mundane and the extraordinary in a moving, yet unforced manner.

Given this novel’s pervasive challenging of what might be termed ordinariness of place or character, it is disappointing to read reviews which seem not to have perceived this dynamic. Thuy On, for example, stumbles at the first literary hurdle, when she describes Margery as ‘an easily recognisable type’, and later asserts that the ‘characters that populate this little strip of inner suburbia are all quirky grotesques.’ (On, The Australian, 25 June 2011) On appears to start from the assumption that a strip of inner suburbia must be ‘little’ not only physically, but also in terms of interest and import. And further, she falls into the trap of taking unremarkable appearances, cleverly created by the writer, for the ultimate reality of Ham’s story. Yet a depth beyond appearances, and a capacity to elicit greater insight and compassion than habitual typecasting might yield, are the hallmarks of Ham’s procedure in this book. Walter, Margery’s boxer son, who sustained brain damage in the process of losing his last title fight, is a good example of this, and brilliantly drawn. The process of Walter’s numerous losses of his temper is conveyed with great humour and also a tender recognition of his lack of control, by focusing the description on his physical actions, each an increment of anger:  ‘stood up, nudging the table’… ‘turned sideways, his right punching hand turned to his chin’… ‘started rocking again, raised his fists and dodged an invisible left jab’… ‘bounced, winding his head…’

Thuy On judges the main character Margery to be a stereotype: ‘one of those grumpy old women who seems to be prematurely pickled in disappointment.’ (On, 2011) Margery is perhaps a type, to an extent, in a literary sense:  she is the naïve venturing into a deceptive world, like Voltaire’s Candide, though there is an element of the wilful in Margery’s innocence: ‘I also understood then that the entire world, everyone on earth, knew truths that I had chosen not to believe.’ (321) Yet what this novel actually does is create a ‘type’ in order to allow us to inhabit it, and thereby be party to an intimate exploration of the nature of the forces which can lead to its formation. There is a surface recognisability, ordinariness, yes. But as the narrative proceeds, the all-too-familiar emotional trajectory towards disappointment and bitterness in old age is compellingly traced, and its inevitability questioned. Again, there is nothing ultimately mundane and banal in this. It is, rather, a question of major importance which Ham’s narrative is asking: does time, do the days and months and years of our lives, in our culture, within the family and suburban circumstances in which most of us live, somehow pave the way towards an increasingly desolate, embittered sense of what it was all about? Only a full and attentive reading of Ham’s book, of course, will reveal her answer.

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