Published in 1989, by Penguin
Jessica Anderson (1916-2010) won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice, for Tirra Lirra by the River in 1978 and The Impersonators in 1980. Taking Shelter is one of her less lauded novels (they all sound quite different). I picked it up mainly because of one of the cover blurbs: ‘A provocative blend of Jane Austen domesticity, Iris Murdoch androgyny, and Australian sensuality’—The Washington Post Book World.
Taking Shelter is mainly about Beth and her shifting group of friends in Sydney in 1986. It has what I think of as a very Sydney, ’80s feel about it. AIDS is starting to make itself known, and the sexuality of Beth’s boyfriend Miles is dubious. He seems to be setting Beth up as a beard, as he has a specific, successful image of his life. Much of the story is told through (quite naturalistic) dialogue, and through Juliet’s dreams. Juliet is a friend of Miles but remains friends with Beth once the truth is known, after Beth has (very quickly) moved on.
Juliet is an odd character, older than her friends, a bit racist, and supposedly asexual. She writes down her dreams and then insists on linking them to the ‘detritus’ from her day. But as the novel progresses she begins to realise that her dreams may have more power. Fate is one of the main themes of the novel. One of Beth’s most vivid memories from childhood is of a day in Rome, on a family holiday, when she met a little boy who was making a list of creatures. She meets a guy called Marcus at a party. Could he be that same little boy?
Beth moved from Melbourne to Sydney and I did enjoy the references to her football-mad family. (I moved from NSW to Melbourne.) The beginning of the novel is confusing, with too many characters introduced and lots of dialogue, but the reader soon settles into the style, and the characters become clear and separate. Many do remain on the periphery though, and I think Anderson is saying something about groups, and family; the way we all, always, have people around us. At one point (perhaps the sweetest in the book) Beth and her new lover both get the flu and lock themselves up for days, in a delirium of fever and lovemaking. Fate will continue to play a role in their relationship.
Not a lot happens in this book, and it’s written plainly, but characters care for each other, dream, come together, fall apart. It reminds me a little of Australian films like He Died With a Felafel in His Hand (I haven’t read the book), or something like Praise (1998), though less gritty. Even though it’s set when my Boomer parents were around the age of the characters, it feels more Gen X. I think that’s partly the casual, urban, Sydney element.
As mentioned, Anderson’s other novels sound quite different. The Commandant is part of the new Text Australian Classics range, and The Impersonators is in the Sydney University Press Australian Classics range. And there’s a great review of Tirra Lirra by the River by Claire Corbett on the Overland blog. Have you read Jessica Anderson’s novels? I’d love to hear what you think. I was so surprised I hadn’t heard of this acclaimed Australian author before picking up this book.
This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.