Casual fate: Taking Shelter by Jessica Anderson

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.

15 thoughts on “Casual fate: Taking Shelter by Jessica Anderson

  1. I’ve read just one of JA’s novels, Tirra Lirra by the River (twice). I read it when young and it was the first time I became aware of the narrative technique of what I was reading, mostly because I was quite struck by it. (I wrote more about it here: The second reading, as always seems to be the case, wasn’t as magical, but I still think it’s a great book!

    • Thanks for sharing, what a great blog post–the memory of reading the book, and then you come across it accidentally. That weirdly relates to the themes in Taking Shelter: fate and coincidences.

  2. Ha, I just realised from the comment above that JA and JA have the same initials!

    Yes, I’ve read two Andersons, Tirra Lirra by the river and The commandant (which I’ve reviewed on my blog because Sydney University also published it in their classics range). Loved them both. Every time I see her name I want to grab the one on on TBR – One of the wattle birds – and read it too, but somehow I never seem to get to it. I will one day though!

    She has a great way with words … which keeps you going even when the plot is pretty sparse. (Though, being an historical novel, The commandant probably had more plot than her other works).

    • Yes, I’d like to try something else of hers at some point. It’s interesting that this one did sort of fall away (and out of print) while some of the others were both popular and acclaimed.

  3. This sounds really interesting; thanks for the review Angela. And thanks so much for the shout out too – I enjoyed writing that review of Tirra Lirra. Maybe time for a bit of a Jessica Anderson revival? I think she’s been unjustly forgotten a bit. I hadn’t heard of this book – where did you pick it up? ‘A provocative blend of Jane Austen domesticity, Iris Murdoch androgyny, and Australian sensuality’ – this definitely makes me want to put Taking Shelter on my list. I’m definitely going to read The Commandant as well.

    • I picked it up when Writers Vic were selling off their library. I also nabbed some Debra Adelaide, Thea Astley, Dorothy Johnston, Gillian Mears, Jean Bedford & more! (Of course, I had the challenge in mind.) Looks like you can get it second-hand off Amazon, to which I’ve linked. You might have more luck finding a local seller on AbeBooks or a site like that. Yes, maybe it is time for a bit of a Jessica Anderson revival!

  4. Pingback: Taking Shelter, by Jessica Anderson | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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