The Australian book to read next: My Father’s Moon by Elizabeth Jolley

For Carrie Tiffany, reading the 1989 novel once wasn’t enough. She wanted to carry its narrator inside her as long as she could

Elizabeth Jolley.
 Elizabeth Jolley received 39 rejections in one year alone. In My Father’s Moon she created a protagonist you’ll want to keep alive forever. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

It is proof of a fine novel when its characters enter your spirit as you are reading and take up residence there. The experience is akin to falling in love. You are vividly enveloped by thoughts of another. They are alive inside you, perceiving the world with you, breath by breath. It is the most intimate of feelings. Film can’t achieve this, or theatre, or visual art; perhaps music gets closest. It’s only the novel that can show you the grain of another’s soul.

Vera Wright narrates Elizabeth Jolley’s 1989 novel My Father’s Moon.

The streets of suburban Melbourne are silent. I live alone. But here I am with the young nurse Vera in cold, mean London during the second world war, as she clanks around the wards of a training hospital with her ration jars of jam and butter hanging from her belt.

Vera cloaks me as I walk along the railway line at dusk watching the brightly lit carriages slide by on their return from the city – empty, empty, empty, empty. We stand in front of the bare supermarket shelves that have been freshly ransacked by anxious lock-downers. How insubstantial the world feels without its goods.

I read the novel quickly. As soon as I finish it, I begin again. It is told in reverse order in a series of jagged, impressionistic short stories. I think I’m trying to keep Vera alive for as long as possible, but also to enhance her narrative with this circular reading. If the dire events at the beginning of the novel (the result of all of the miss-steps and cruelties that come later) can be recast, perhaps there is a better life for Vera Wright?

I carry Vera around inside me. I want her to be free and to be loved. I want her to be sensually and sexually alive. The borders are closed but I dream of taking her to Queensland and laying her down in a warm green sea, feeding her a pineapple, showing her the whitest and purest of moons. Of course, I want these things for myself too.

The relationship between us isn’t smooth. Vera is meek, naive and loveless. She is also bitter and forlorn. She lies. She is bullied and she bullies others. Happiness must be grasped at and stolen, never shared. Vera is unable to see the world around her outside the narrow punishing hierarchies of the boarding school and the hospital. I love Vera, although at times I would gladly strangle her. She invites her entrapment not just with waywardness, but wilfully.

The young nurse Vera Wright is an aspiring writer. She is engaged in that dual impulse I know so well, to conceal and reveal. Vera’s mother tells her she is too young to be a writer, she has no experience yet. This is from the pen of Elizabeth Jolley who wrote for years without success. In one year alone Jolley received 39 rejections for her writing. She was in her fifties when her work finally found favour.

Read Elizabeth Jolley’s My Father’s Moon. You may want to go on and read the Vera Wright trilogy. You may want to go on and read and re-read Elizabeth Jolley, as I do, and as I will continue to do.

The huge Easter moon, as if within arm’s length, as if it can be reached simply by stretching out both hands to take it and hold it, is low down in the sky, serene and full, lighting the night so that it looks as if everything is snow covered, and the deep shadows lie across pale, moon-whitened lawns. This moon is the same moon that my father will have seen. He always told me when I had to leave for school, every term when I wept when I did not want to leave, he told me that if I looked at the moon, wherever I was, I was seeing the same moon that he was looking at. ‘And because of this,’ he said, ‘you must know that I am not very far away. You must never feel lonely,’ he said. He said the moon would never be extinguished. Sometimes, he said, it was not possible to see the moon, but it was always there. He said he liked to think of it as his.

– Elizabeth Jolley, My Father’s Moon, Penguin, Australia, 1989. p. 26.

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