“Food and hot tea lift my spirits.” So says Nora Porteous, who has returned to her family home in Australia, a “wretched and slothful old woman”.
Well, some might think her so. Wretched. Slothful. Old. At least, she muses that it’s possible. But Nora works against that impression.
She aims to “talk and smile too much” to reassure others. And she dabbles in “utter passivity”. She is aware of “sudden severances of attention” and tries to compensate for them.
She practices her “relinquishment of the will to fate”. And she is troubled by guilt for being angry with those who are kind to her in her “old age” (she resists the word ‘elderly’).
But, at times, Nora barely recognizes herself, this older Nora, in need of acceptance and forgiveness.
“In the bathroom mirror I look with equanimity at an old woman with a dew-lapped face and hands like bunches of knotted sticks.”
Nora is not only reinhabiting the family home; she is reinhabiting her own self, coming to terms with the choices that she made when her flesh was supple and dew-kissed, her hands graceful and industrious, accepting (and forgiving) this older Nora.
“Somewhere in this house, I say to myself, I shall make my domain. In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly.”
Nora is creating a Room of her Own. But this space is filled as much with memories as with reality. While the Custs wander in and out of the narrative to care for Nora, who becomes ill and ordered to stay abed shortly after she arrives back home, Nora wanders in her recollections.
Much of her time is spent grappling with her memories of marriage: “I know this anger well. It concerns Colin Porteous, but is directed less against him than against vile wastage, vile wastage.”
She has “an edited version” of Colin that she “kept on the light side to present to chosen audiences”, but in fact her marriage was not only disappointing but disastrous.
“Thus passed many months of meaningless harmony, slick as a ribbon but studded with carbuncles of silent misery.”
(Nora’s voice is matter-of-fact, brusque even. But occasionally phrases like this, unexpectedly poetic, appear in the narrative and demand admiration.)
This younger Nora was “Nora Porteous, nee Roche, thirty-five, domestic worker, amateur dressmaker, detested concubine, and student of the French subjunctive tense”.
Looking back, she views herself as still waiting then.
“Much of my long life can be apportioned into periods of waiting, but during that first long period perhaps I was able to play and create because for most of the time I waited without panic, whereas in the second long period, in the iron-grey and terracotta suburb, all my little talents were blighted by panic and despair, so that there were only the ill-cut dresses for the women, and the cakes for the tennis club.”
And, even once she was done with waiting, she was still unacceptable.
“Reckless.Cynical.Frivolous. Those were the words they used about me. And rebuttal seemed so hopeless, and the thicket of misunderstanding between us so old and dense and dusty, that it was less exhausting simply to be as reckless, cynical, and frivolous as they said I was.”
And, then, she became invisible.
“Overnight, it seemed to me, the homage of glances was withdrawn, and I became an invisible woman. The comeliness of my face had depended on moulding rather than sculpture, and the deterioration of the outer casing quickly revealed the weakness of the frame.”
Tirra Lirra by the River is a slim volume (about 150 pages long) but readers feel completely immersed in Nora’s consciousness by the end of the book.
Sometimes her memories are shared with a director’s eye, with specific details of setting (most often Australian, but some English) and character drawn.
Often the memories are dribbled into the text like grains of sugar into a cup of tea, a few words of recollection and then continuing with the narrative in the present.
Jessica Anderson’s award-winning novel assembles Nora on the page with delicacy and determination: a woman done with waiting.
Note: I was inspired to read this by Kimbofo’s Australian Literature Month. I thought that I had read it once before, but when I checked my reading log, I found that was not the case; I might have been thinking of Elizabeth Jolley’s Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, both being skinny blue books about women aging and working to reconcile their memories with realities.