Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Tag: NRWC

On gardens in literature: Six novels

blog ungardeners picGardens lie at the centre of many compelling novels as places of sanctuary, nourishment, control and ruthlessness. In others, only a tendril might snake its way in – with striking effect. Here are six of my favourite Australian novels about people and plants.

The Ungardeners by Ethel Turner
Ethel Turner (aka Jean Curlewis) is best known for her classic novel Seven Little Australians. Her less well-known work, The Ungardeners, was published in 1925. Part fable and part witty political satire, the original colour plates suggest it might stretch to a children’s book.
Australian poet and gardener Annie travels the globe with her English stockbroker husband, Peter Purcell. After he suffers a nervous breakdown, they settle in Australia for a gentler life. Eventually Annie lures Peter out of the sick bed and into her world: the quiet joy of the garden.
But times are tough and Annie is forced to sell off some of her land. When she returns from a brief trip away, she discovers “the bit of creek fringed by wattles” has become a housing estate clustering around the busy chimney of a jam factory. Soon her flowers begin to disappear. The neighbouring “slum” children are the culprits, and claim they need flowers for a relative’s funeral. Is it manipulation or ingenuity when Annie discovers the children are selling off her flowers at the local cemetery?
The Ungardeners is about many things, including Australia’s place in a fragmented and rapidly changing world, the universal tension between materialism and art, and the idea of development versus nature.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Gardens are usually seen as the triumph of order over chaos. In The Secret River, gardening brings chaos and dispossession.
When ex-convict William Thornhill takes up a piece of land on the Hawkesbury, he establishes a house and a garden. Armed with a bag of seeds, precious tools, and labouring help, he is determined to slough off his old life of austerity and petty crime. The aim is to move up in a society where the hierarchies of Britain don’t necessarily apply.
But Thornhill’s seemingly simple act of gardening can never be innocent or neutral in a colonial land. As soon as he plants his plot, something – or somebody – digs it up. His garden becomes a “message”, the equivalent of “hoisting a flag up a pole”, a claim that this “insignificant splinter” of the country is now his.
In The Secret River, Kate Grenville reminds us that Australian history is contested ground. One person’s feast is another person’s famine, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White
The Hanging Garden was published posthumously, accompanied by a level of controversy. This ‘unfinished’ novel centres on fourteen-year-old Eirene Sklavos who arrives in Sydney from Greece with her mother, the flighty Australian-born Geraldine. Eirene’s father, a Greek “patriot”, has been tortured and killed in prison. Once Eirene has been delivered, her mother returns to war-weary Europe.
Eirene ends up creeping about a boarding house on the harbour, inhabited by the migraine-prone but not unkind Mrs Bulpit, and another teenage exile, Gilbert Horsfall. Gil has been evacuated from the London Blitz and suspects his father was pleased to offload him.
Gil sees Eirene as a fascinating “snake”. He’s impressed by her casual snippets of Greek myth, her worldliness, and firsthand experience of communism and volcanos. For Eirene, Gil is a “sinewy white monkey”, who swings between being her friend and a traitor.
In the no man’s land of Mrs Bulpit’s overgrown garden above the cliffs, Gil and Eirene discover the fragile possibility of companionship. But loyalties continue to shift as quickly as the fickle harbour light. Their place in the garden is a shared but precarious, fleeting sanctuary, poised between childhood and adulthood, the world and home.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Heat and Light is divided into three parts: Heat, Water and Light. In the Water section, the line between people and plants blurs. Set in the 2020s, the Australian government is evacuating islands in Moreton Bay so Indigenous people can apply to live on a kind of “super” island. However, some of the islands’ mysterious original inhabitants, known as “the plantpeople”, are proving difficult to move.
The protagonist, Kaden, is a young Indigenous botanist. She comes into contact with the plantpeople when she scores a job distributing a scientific formula to them on behalf of the government. Larapinta is the first “specimen” she meets. Green-skinned and of fluid gender, Larapinta “has a face like me and you”. As their relationship develops, Kaden becomes more politicised and suspects her seemingly benevolent role at the company has another agenda.
Heat and Light has been described both as a novel and an anthology, and as a sci-fi/fantasy work. Like the character Larapinta, the book resists neat classification as it pushes back and forth through the porous borders between human and non-human; truth and myth; past, present and future; the other and self.

A Curious Intimacy by Jessica White
A Curious Intimacy is inspired by the nineteenth-century botanist and plant-hunter Georgina Molloy. The protagonist is Ingrid Markham, who rides her horse around Western Australia in pursuit of plants. Back in her hometown of Adelaide, Ingrid has been trained in the rigours of botany by her ageing but liberal-minded father. Unable to make fieldtrips himself, Ingrid sets off with a bruised heart, a passion for discovery, and the latest in collecting kits. With Victorian-era fervour, she is both woman and explorer, finding, cataloguing, and painting her discoveries.
During her expedition, Ingrid meets Ellyn Ives, whose husband has been away for months. The differences between the women are stark. Ingrid flourishes outdoors, and easily fixes a broken water pump. Ellyn rarely steps further than the water-deprived rose beds encircling the dilapidating homestead. Ingrid is enlivened by studying plants she hasn’t seen before. Ellyn is reluctant to leave the unhappy domestic atmosphere where an empty cradle haunts one room. To her the bush looks “all the same”, and is a place where she will become lost. As the two women form a tentative bond, the homestead garden serves as a rickety bridge between their worlds.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
The Watch Tower opens with Laura and Clare Vaizey being abandoned by their mother and cast out of their boarding school. Sydney is in the grip of war. The sisters are adrift until Felix Shaw, a small-time businessman with a purring car and grand ideas offers to take them under his wing.
Laura is persuaded to work at Felix’s box factory. As soon as she settles into the tedium, he abruptly changes his line of trade. Felix keeps both girls off balance, playing them against each other as he zigzags from one shady venture and extreme mental state to another. Any seemingly kind action is attached by a web of strings.
As Felix moves up in the world, he wants the flashy house and garden to match. Once the sisters are installed, Felix marries Laura and Claire begins to refer to her sister as “Hostage Number One”. Felix takes to working outdoors, lunging at the garden like a bayonet-wielding soldier charging across a battlefield.
The garden is only a fleck in the tight weave of this narrative, but it is a potent symbol of Felix’s obsession with appearances. As he tries to assert control over nature, and others, he attempts to maintain his dominance in his relentlessly vigilant corner of the world.

This article was first published in ‘northerly’ the NRWC’s magazine.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

Advertisements

Author profile in northerly

Here’s an author interview published in the May 2015 edition of  northerly, the magazine of The Northern Rivers Writers Centre.

Emma Ashmere talks about why and how she writes (and rewrites). She participated in the NRWC residential mentorship program for emerging writers in 2010.

Q: Why do you write?

Because I can’t not.

Q: Do you have a routine for writing?

Admittedly, it can be a bit of a moveable feast, as I tend to write in isolated bursts. If for some reason I can’t get to the keyboard, a few minutes of doing something towards the project helps keep me connected to it – even if it’s just looking up what hats were all the rage in 1920s Sydney, ordering a book from the library, deciding on a character’s name, or scribbling illegible midnight notes.

Q: How has writing your second novel been different to writing your first?

It feels a bit like leaping into the void again – but a friendly void. I’m far less precious about what stays and what goes. Even if a sentence seems tight, it’s likely a thread will be pulled, all will unravel, and need to be knitted back together again.

Q: Do your novels change a lot between first draft and later drafts?

Yes, thankfully. The story I initially wanted to write is still there in the final draft. But some of the themes, plot lines, points of view, and characters might have expanded, while others will have fallen by the wayside. There have been several instances when it’s been necessary to cut whole chunks either because they were dead ends, overwritten, obsolete, or suddenly belonged in another book. This was daunting at the time, but it instantly opened up new space for fresh approaches and ideas.

Q: What are some common mistakes you see among emerging novel writers?

Because the best learning about writing happens when you write, mistakes are a necessary part of the apprenticeship. Until you’re underway, it can be hard to understand the time, patience, and resilience needed during the long and hilly path of writing, rewriting, and then (hopefully) feeling your way through the publication process. I’ve found it very helpful and heartening to go to writing events, festivals, workshops, writing groups, book clubs and launches, and to meet other writers and forge supportive connections with a wide range of people in the writing world. It’s also important to enjoy it.

Q: What do you find rewarding about teaching writing?

When I tutored ‘life writing’ at a Melbourne university, the continual reward was hearing about other people’s lives, which was always surprising, sometimes shocking and often inspiring. My aim was to be encouraging but realistic, to encourage constructive feedback of other students’ writing and their own, while passing on techniques to help people articulate what they wanted to say as clearly as possible – and in their own way. To see people shift from hesitancy to confidence over those weeks was fantastic. All the way through, the learning was very much a two way street.

Q: Who are some writers you admire?

There are too many to mention here – but some perennial favourites are: Ali Smith, Janet Frame, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, Hilary Mantel, E.L. Doctorow, Alexis Wright, Virginia Woolf, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and Deborah Levy because they somehow alchemise history, poetry, theory, absurdity, tragedy, politics and dream into fiction. And also Elizabeth Harrower because her psychological insights into seemingly ordinary people doing seemingly ordinary things arrive as sharply and stealthily as paper cuts.

Q: If there was one piece of advice you could give to someone about to embark on writing a novel, what would it be?

Read widely. And a lot.

Emma Ashmere’s novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press.

NRWC

Logo of the Northern Rivers Writers Centre in Byron Bay, NSW, Australia

 The Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre is a full-time centre that provides resources, information and literary activities for writers and readers. The Writers’ Centre is a non-profit, incorporated organisation receiving core funding from Arts NSW. The Centre offers a year-round program of workshops, seminars and events as well as the annual Byron Bay Writers Festival.

Visit www.nrwc.org.au for more information.