Marion Halligan is a prolific writer, and this is not the first time I have reviewed one of her books. Once, when she branched out into the genre of lightweight crime – The Apricot Colonel (2006) and Murder on the Apricot Coast (2008) – I commented on the problem faced by Cassandra, the novel’s narrator. An editor-turned-author, she turns out boo ...
This is a book of rather brief short stories, few of which exceed a dozen pages. This leaves room for nineteen stories in a fairly short collection. Most of them read easily, each one effortlessly displacing its predecessor. There are, of course, standouts, to which I shall return, but the most striking overall characteristic is the distinctively personalised tone. The wide variety of personae ...
It is characteristic of Marion Halligan’s work to celebrate surfaces, how things look and taste. Wine and good food matter, as do décor, old houses, antique furniture, and books, gardens and architecture. Valley of Grace is set in a strongly realised contemporary Paris, and the novel is very much about how Parisians live now. The past is also important, not only as the source of a revered aesthetic but as a legacy that shapes the present. The central plot device is an antiquarian bookshop in the Latin Quarter and the social and professional interactions of the characters connected with it. The main focus of the novel is upon the lives of two generations of women.
Marion Halligan is a long-established fiction writer with an impressive list of publications. Even readers with only partial familiarity will recall that many of her novels have been informed by autobiographical material reflecting personal leanings and experiences, particularly her fondness for France, food and cooking, and the profound grief she sustained when her husband died. But in 2006 she changed direction, plunging into crime fiction with The Apricot Colonel, to which she has now produced a sequel. Both are written in the first person by a narrator called Cassandra Travers, a book editor.
The heroine of Marion Halligan’s latest novel has little time for reviewers. More often than not, she complains, they are ‘patronising ignorant nobodies’ who wouldn’t know a book from a biscuit. I will not hazard a biscuit metaphor, but I will venture a complaint. The Apricot Colonel is as elegantly written as any of Halligan’s novels. It provides the linguistic curios, surprising digressions and insights into storytelling that made Lovers’ Knots (1992), The Fog Garden (2001) and The Point (2003), among others, so exciting. Next to these, The Apricot Colonel is startlingly slight. In Halligan’s best novels, strong story lines tether the witty digressions and thoughtful asides together. In The Apricot Colonel, the plot never seems quite sturdy enough to hold them.
Marion Halligan’s latest novel should be a success. It is a continuation and concentration of themes, characters, and settings that have consistently engaged her in a considerable body of work. The Point is full of Halligan favourites: food, art, love, literature, hubris, Canberra, Séverac, and the Spensers. It is a novel with currency, exploring the IT industry, the business of food, and the perceived distance between those with and those without. Halligan has a reputation as an intense and original writer, but The Point is a disappointing novel.
I was tempted to do a wicked thing when writing about Between the Fish and the Mud Cake: to take its subjects and describe my experiences with them. So I would tell you all about my lunch with Georges Perec at the French Embassy in Canberra. What he said, and I said, and the ambassador said, and what I made of it all. The book mentions touring with Carmel Bird; I could describe my friendship with her. But Andrew Riemer is not that sort of reviewer, and his book is much too interesting in itself to be one-upped like that.
Ever since I heard Amy Witting speak at the recent Melbourne Festival, I have been thinking about her name, which is a chosen not a given name and therefore may be considered for its meanings. It occurred to me that there may be conscious artistry in her name as in her work. Amy: that must mean love. And Witting will be knowledge, awareness. The two an expression of the novelist’s desire. Her new book has both in good measure. Even more strongly here than in her earlier work, I have the sense of Witting’s voice speaking to us. Of course her medium is the characters through whom her plot works itself out, and the wise things spoken are the words of these characters, but I had an intimate sense of their being hers as well. You could extract her bons mots, her reflections, her epigrams, and make a nice little volume of the wit arid wisdom of Amy Witting. But of course you would lose a part of their power, and all the poignancy that context gives.
Marion Halligan’s new novel has as its centrepiece, shiny and assertive, flagged by its title, a dress made with loving care but, nonetheless, improvised just so that the fabric will go far enough. A dress that Molly Pellerin wears to a party at the laundry where she works, an event that becomes a defining moment in her life, the dress a legacy, offering an image of Molly as dazzling, beautiful, and loved. The photograph sustains her memory, potently, permanently.