I met and became friends with Robin Barker when we were doing an MA in Writing course at the University of Technology, Sydney. Robin was famous because she had published two books of advice on babies, Baby Love and The Mighty Toddler. I was a twenty-three year old who loved nineteenth-century fiction and wanted to write my first novel and didn’t have a clue about babies in any shape or form. Somehow we hit it off. I’ve always enjoyed the company of older women – they’re more interesting and emotionally complex than younger women and, having done more, they often have good stories too. I’m not sure why Rob was interested in me, unless it was that she recognised my ambition and wanted to help, which she certainly did. When I later won a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors, she introduced me to her editor Julia Stiles, who in turn helped me with my manuscript and introduced me to some agents, and then A Curious Intimacy finally found its feet.
Rob has been working on the stories in Close to Home since that time (I discovered I still had a draft of one in my writing box) and it was fantastic to see them in print, particularly the stories I knew she was struggling with, as all writers do. Plus the cover is gorgeous. I read the book a while back, leaving it in a tequila bar when I took everything out of my handbag to find my wallet. To my relief, the bartender still had it when I went back the following week.
Of all the stories, the one that’s stayed with me is ‘Josephine’s Face’. A fairly long, meandering story in the second person, it doesn’t have a great deal of tension, but it achieves nuance and complexity through the use of hindsight. The narrator, posted to America with her army husband and kids, befriends an African-American mother in the park attached to the military’s housing complex. As the narrator comes to know her, it slowly becomes apparent to her how race is entwined with class. Where the white women make their menfolk lunch and listen to their day, Josephine goes out to work. Young and naïve, the narrator comments how ‘It didn’t take long for Don and me to be drawn into a welcoming circle of officers and wives, which I soon noticed you and AJ weren’t part of. It didn’t seem to be because you were deliberately excluded, and nor did you ever give me that impression. At the time I presumed it was because you were working shifts in that hospital in Alexandria’. Subtlety, the use of ‘at that time’ shows it wasn’t this reason at all. The accounts of subtle racism continue in conversations at dinner parties or at shops. There are tiny, dropped words that, on their own, are hard to pick out, but when they’re laid in a line with the benefit of hindsight, they accumulate into something cruel. In the midst of it all is this glamorous, intelligent, accomplished woman, ignoring the insults with aplomb.
Children bind together many of these stories, illuminating the messes that adults get caught up in, and sometimes make for themselves. I loved the shifting relationships and liaisons occasioned by a couple trying to conceive in ‘First Love’, and its unexpected twists. In other stories there are complications arising from inadequate parenting, or parents wrestling over custody, but joy always wells up, from employers, babies, unexpected strangers.
The first and last stories are pieces of memoir, and they resonated with me most strongly. The last is about the complex legacy of war and its memories, and how writing can help soothe and smooth the trauma that war carries. The first, story about Rob’s two grandmothers, shows her skillful rendering of character and class. There is the fat grandmother, who vacuums in the nude and takes in an Aboriginal family when floods threaten. Meanwhile the thin grandmother, to survive, takes in boarders, ‘New Australians with broken English and glistening hair’. Later, a part of her history unexpectedly emerges, leaving her with a ‘silent, rebellious anger’. I loved this story for its clear rendition of class through dialogue and contrast, and its illustration impact of poverty upon women, and how tough they have to be to survive. It’s a good way to end my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year.
This is my tenth and final review for the Challenge. And here is a pic of Rob and I in 2003.