Elemental by Amanda Curtin

butterfly biscuit

A lovely touch: a butter biscuit butterfly from the Elemental book launch.

I have been looking at the back blurb of Elemental by Amanda Curtin for a couple of weeks, itching for a good time to dive in. Every time I glanced at the protagonist’s name, ‘Meggie Tulloch’, my brain did strange and unusual things; the letters rearranged themselves and all I could see was ‘Maggie Tulliver’. So, I must be plain; I had The Mill on the Floss on my mind, colouring my experience of this text.  I read Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss many moons ago, but I’ll never forget Maggie Tulliver, and now I’ll never forget little  Fish Meggie, the Gutting Girl from the Top of the World. I’ll never forget the woman she became; the woman who speaks to her ‘Lambsie’ in an endearing Scottish brogue. She shares her agonies, of which there are many; her delights, of which there are few.  The delights are dotted neatly throughout, so, whilst this is a sad novel, poignant and painful, it is not entirely grim; rather, the small joys shine, diamond clear, aching in their beauty.

Maggie Tulliver and ‘Ginger’ Meggie Tulloch have more than a little in common as far as I can see. Both stories begin with an intense examination of childhood, and, from the get-go, these gals shine bright, fierce in their intellect. They are torn between a sense of familial obligation and a desire to escape and transcend the simple ways of village life. St Oggs and Roanhaven are primitive places and both women must contend with the rigid patriarchal conventions of a backwards world. Each has deeper intellectual interests than her environment and position as a female will allow. Ultimately, Maggie and Meggie (and most of the other women in Elemental) will be punished for their transgressions.

There’s punishment aplenty here; childhood punishment that makes me think of Blake’s chimney sweepers, the hard lives of working class children. But there’s also an interesting dichotomy, one with which I’m quite preoccupied, so I shall quote a short passage from Elemental:

“…the thing I venture would befuddle a child of today is this: in the scheme of the universe- your family, your village- you were one notch north of hindrance and two south of help… if you had a thought in your head there was none who would stoop to hear it and none to say you mattered the peeriest thing…I canna imagine a child of today taking it into their head that they were not the centre of all else.” (p.13)

I’m very interested in this idea about the ‘swing of the pendulum’ in regards to the state of childhood; this great shift we’ve seen since the industrial revolution and the Victorian idealisation of childhood. We do mollycoddle our little ones these days…

The women of Roanhaven carry their men on their backs through icy water to the Lily Maud and it’s a long time yet before any of the women will wrestle free. But wrestle free they do, some shackle free and in love, others on the wings of death, destined for tragedy. I want to be careful not give too much away; the pacing of the storytelling is superb; Curtin is an expert of the slow reveal. But I have to say this: I just about punched the air at a certain utterance from Meggie Tulloch on page 137: ‘I say lassies can make up their own minds about where they go.’  Unlike poor Kitta and Unty Jinna, Meggie finds a good man; a fellow who bids her to ‘make up [her] own mind’. Ahhhhh…see, there’s one of those aching, diamond clear joys.

We’re interested in similar themes, Amanda and I; the female experience, the intense nature of relationships between women. There’s a beautiful sense of female camaraderie expressed in Elemental; it’s the female version of mateship that we forget to mention in the Aussie mythology.  We see it amongst the Gremista girls and later, the women of Mills & Ware; we see it in Meggie’s bond with her sister Kitta, and later Clementina. So often, women, grandmothers, mothers and girlfriends, provide the emotional support that the men in their lives cannot. The sisterhood of Gremista provide Meggie with a romantic interlude in the way of an upturned box and a jug of ale on her wedding night. Similarly, the women of Mills & Ware inject joy in the war-time nuptials of Enzia and Enzia’s Joe (a neat reversal of the earlier patriarchal possessive namesakes) with a wedding cake that melts in the hot South Beach sun. More joy.

I’m going to leave Eliot behind here, though I’m happy to speak of the two authors in the same breath; Amanda’s prose just about had me buckled over with a whole body, physiological exclamation: every pore sang, ‘Oh, to write like that!’

I know…I gush. But to assume a voice such as Meggie’s is no small feat. I’m inspired: I’m hoping to play around with a radically different voice in my next short story. But I can’t deny that I had to read and reread the earliest chapters; it was the dialect that got me; it’s hard to make meaning when your semantic understandings don’t marry, when you’re constantly monitoring your own comprehension and flicking back to the glossary. It was an interesting exercise for me: I thought of my little students who suffer from Specific Language Impairment, who are constantly faced with these semantic difficulties. I was reminded of the deep value in reading good literature; in the acquisition of new world knowledge and vocabulary; the way we are enriched as we participate, we conjure, we magick from the air new meaning. Of course, it isn’t long before you’re swept out on the Roanhaven tide, til you know your quinies from your limmers. I’m not sure if I just grew accustomed to the vernacular, or if Curtin eased off on it as we edged deeper into the story, but how I grew to love the distinctive cadence and rhythm of Meggie’s Scottish tongue.

There’s heady relief in the latter part of the book when we travel from ice to sun, from fish stench to the sugary waft of Mills & Ware butter biscuits. There’s a real affection for this place, this wide-skyed place: Fremantle. I’d hazard a guess that some of the descriptions will leave West Australian language lovers weak at the knees.

There’s so much I could say about this book, but it’s time to close now. There’s the wonderful description of the puffin that made my son ask me why I was smiling, eyes closed; there’s the central mystery revolving around Brukie’s Sandy; there’s Granda Jeemsie, and the coda at the end. Read it.

Ooh…one last thing that I must not fail to mention: Oh, to write a sex scene like the one on page 195. It’s very, very good.

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6 thoughts on “Elemental by Amanda Curtin

  1. Kristen, thank you for this especially thoughtful review, and your personal responses to Elemental. I wanted to let you know, too, that the creator of those gorgeous butterfly biscuits is Britt Ingerson from UWA Publishing. I so hope she doesn’t fly the publishing nest for patisserie fame, but she could, she could! 🙂

  2. One of the best reviews of this book that I’ve read and I couldn’t agree with you more on its exquisite prose. Notwithstanding, you possess a pretty good turn of phrase yourself!

  3. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge—2013 wrap-up | looking up/looking down

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