Elizabeth Jolley: Spare Little Novels?

That’s what the LA Times calls The Newspaper of Claremont Street: “Every word of this spare little novel is right.”

(You could say the same of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, which I read earlier this year; this is the only other of her novels on my shelf, so I’m not sure if she is known for this beyond these works, but I would expect so.)

Like Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Jolley knows how to make every word count.

The Newspaper of Claremont Street is actually Margarite Morris, but she’s called ‘Newspaper’ or ‘Weekly’ because she knows all the news of the neighbourhood.

Claremont Street is one of the “longest and oldest streets in the town”, with some doctors and lawyers and trade workers and boarders, some big old mansions and a new block of flats: it’s a neighbourhood characterized by variety.

It has big old trees: Norfolk Island pines, Moreton Bay fig trees and gigantic mulberries in old gardens. The cemetery is “fringed with long-leaved peppermint and trailing eucalyptus…yellow-flowered acacias and other flowering trees made curtains between the graves”.

Weekly walks this Australian street many times daily. She lives and works there; she cleans the houses of this street. And —

“When people open their doors for their houses to be cleaned, they open themselves.”

And although there is a down-side to being in her position (the exploitation and overwork that one would expect), there is an up-side as well, and she has become adept at manipulating that to, at least on occasion, work in her favour.

How she shares the news of the neighbourhood (or does not) is surprisingly revealing; the hierarchies of the neighbourhood require tactful negotiations.

The relationships in this novel are predominantly client-worker, and, even when they are not, there are balances of power that must be examined and finessed.

This often leads to a quiet tension (and, in one instance, not-so-quiet), which adds a surprising dimension to the novel.

The structure is simple, chronological, and seemingly a simple recounting. As with Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, this slim novel can be read in a couple of hours but it raises some unexpected questions as the story unfolds.

What connects us? How do the random encounters of everyday life develop into something meaningful (or miss that state entirely)?  How do we distinguish between loneliness and solitude? Is it the tiny details or the broad strokes of events that drive us to make integrally important decisions in our lives?

Well, really, the reader is left with one other question at the end of this novel, but that’s unmentionable, even unthinkable, at the beginning. (Though this is the question which will lead me to read more of Elizabeth Jolley’s works.)

Have you read her work? Are there any spare little novels in your TBR?




  1. […] Elizabeth Jolley’s 1981 rather black novella, The Newspaper of Claremont Street (reviewed by Buried in Print), Helen Garner’s 1985 novella, The Children’s Bach (reviewed by four reviewers), and Carrie […]

  2. […] Elizabeth Jolley’s 1981 rather black novella, The Newspaper of Claremont Street (reviewed by Buried in Print), Helen Garner’s 1985 novella, The Children’s Bach (reviewed by four reviewers), and Carrie […]

  3. Whispering Gums September 23, 2012 at 2:46 am - Reply

    I love this novel and often snap it up when I see it to have on hand to give people. I like Jolley, I like spare little novels/novellas and this is one of the best. I like Jolley’s dark humour. Did you know this novel built on one or two of her short stories in her collection Five acre virgin and other stories? If you like Jolley you might like to check it out.

    • Buried In Print September 27, 2012 at 2:35 pm - Reply

      I had the collection from the library earlier this year, Whispering Gums, but then lost track of it with other duedates; I think I need to buy a copy so that I can take time reading them, as many of them looked very short, and I suspect the temptation would be to gobble them, but that would diminish the complexity therein. Thanks for reminding me that I need to do that!

  4. Jules June 2, 2012 at 10:54 am - Reply

    I just read this book. I thought that it was a good read. Jolley is a fantastic writer and has a strong voice. But I found “Weekly” to be a very unusual character and the ending to be rather, unusual. Not sure if it’s a good thing or not though.

    • Buried In Print June 6, 2012 at 10:44 am - Reply

      I had to re-read the second-last chapter twice, because I thought that maybe I had misunderstood something, or just plain missed something! (But, nooooo, it really happened?!?!?!) She reminds me of Muriel Spark, in that I am torn between simply admiring (what’s accomplished in so few words) and feeling a little off-kilter. Maybe it’s like a good cup of coffee: you can still enjoy it tremendously, but you can’t forget that it’s a bitter drink.

  5. […] is about ordinary people in an ordinary village connected by the circumstances of life. This week Buried in Print reviews a novel by Australian author Elizabeth Jolley, The Newspaper of Claremont Street. As […]

  6. Laura May 23, 2012 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    I’ve read only one of Jolley’s novels, The Well, which I received as a gift from an Aussie friend and read about 4 years ago. I liked it quite a lot. “Spare little novel” is a great description. I have another on my TBR, Milk and Honey, which I picked up at a used book sale on the strength of my first experience.

    • Buried In Print May 24, 2012 at 11:24 am - Reply

      That’s the one that I have in mind next, Laura, although if I were to find another at a booksale (as you did), I would contently settle into that one, too. I went through quite a phase of Aussie authors nearly ten years ago now (inspired by The Idea of Perfection and I gathered up a bunch, like this one, that have, since, gone unread, but I’m trying to mend my errant library-obsessive ways, and read these gems from my own shelves.

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