Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Carmel Bird's Field of poppies

Our second book for 2020 was something completely different, Carmel Bird's latest novel, Field of poppies. A story about a tree-changing middle-aged, middle-class couple, who retreat back to the city a few years later when the tree-change doesn't meet expectations, it bemused many in our group. Here, as usual, are our first impressions.

First impressions

Overall, not everyone finished it. Several enjoyed the book but didn't love it, while others greatly liked it. It was variously described as quirky, funny, weird, strange, odd. Many enjoyed the dialogues/conversations in the book - particularly between Marsali and William, and within the reading group.
  • the digressions became tiring after a while. A couple particularly didn't like William's mansplaining, while others liked his WWWs (and laughed at the word play on World Wide Web).
  • too much description of the painting, Field of Poppies at Argenteuil 1873; but another really enjoyed the art descriptions in the novel.
  • irritating to start with, and didn't like the digressions, but as more deaths started to occur, it became more interesting.
  • loved the really lush descriptions, and enjoyed the references to other books, like Virginia Woolf's Jacob's room.
  • liked the description of country town Victoria, and life there.
  • it read like a conversation. Another, though, commented on the "strange diary format".
  • enjoyed it, but wasn't sure of the message.
  • it took a while to get into it, but then started to feel it was like a conversation with a quirky, artistic, intelligent friend
  • really enjoyed reading the book, though the tone tricky, and not quite sure Bird pulled off her goal.
  • really enjoyed it, loving Bird's tone, and her satire on contemporary life with her darker message, a bit like "Nero fiddled while Rome burned".

The ensuing discussion

One member suggested that the message was in the first epigram:

We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators. (Henry Asquith, Secretary of State for War, July 24 1914)
And another member shared a quote from the book that she felt summed it up for her:

Life's a sort of jigsaw, and the pieces of the picture have their own ways of drifting to the surface of the mind, of fitting together, sometimes in surprising ways.

We discussed irony and satire. We felt it was ironic that the tree-changers had returned to the city to live on the 42nd floor of an apartment, in Eureka Tower. Some felt the irony - Eureka being the name of a large gold nugget from the Victorian goldfields - was a bit heavy-handed. One member suggested that it was also ironic that Marsali's commune-living arty parents left their commune - this was during her childhood - to live in suburban Box Hill in Melbourne.

Some enjoyed the Preface with its commentary of contemporary life and society and vision of what's coming? As word lovers, we were inspired by "People forgot how to punctuate or spell" to share some anecdotes! We briefly discussed the line "Cinderella died in the end", a line which is picked up later in the novel in a reference to Beauty and the Beast, and fairy tales:

Beauty always falls in love with the Beast, who always turns out to be the Prince, but that's only the end of the telling, not the end of the lives of Beauty and her Beast-Prince. Life goes on until it doesn't. Cinderella died in the end, and so did Snow White.

We teased out the tree-changing satire, how the tree-changing life hadn't turned out to be as idyllic as out protagonists hoped - they were robbed, and a townsperson, Alice, disappeared. One member recounted her own childhood with a mother seeking romantic old houses which in fact really needed servants to maintain properly. She wonders why there's an attitude that you've "sold out" if you move to an apartment. Another shared a quote from late in the book which she felt explained much about the book:

When I go there for Mirrabooka nights I drive past the gate to Listowel and catch a glimpse of the house itself behind the trees. It's really so very like the house in the distance in the Monet, the dangerous fool's gold of the old lost dream house.

Early in the novel, Marsali talks about dream-houses in literature and her own uncertainty about the idea of "dream".

Anyhow, we enjoyed Bird's descriptions of modern life in a successful rural town, with the cafes and hair salons, reading groups and churches, greenie credentials (including green funerals), music groups and often self-consciously political or earnest artistic pursuits. It was all too real! And then, of course, there was the return of a mine to this historic mining community.

We discussed Alice and how Bird uses Alice in Wonderland as a foil for Alice Dooley. Without spoiling the ending too much, both disappear into the deep, but Alice in Wonderland survives while Alice Dooley doesn't. One member also suggested that Bird's use of foils or parallels, such as this one, isn't black and white, because the world Alice in Wonderland goes into is chaotic (reflecting, perhaps, the world of the 21st century world Marsali lives in.)

We discussed Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock book, and the place of lost children stories in Australian literature. There are missing children in this novel, though the main missing character in this novel, Alice Dooley, is not a child.

We discussed the importance of Monet's painting and the poppies. We noted that while the poppies are pretty on the surface, they also convey something sinister, something that starts, in particular, with WW1 and the poppies of Flanders. Some members, though, found it hard to accept the idea of the gun pointing from the house - but that's just the point. Our dreamhouses are not what they seem at all. They contain the seeds of destruction.

One member commented that Bird was also playing with the idea of fiction. Marsali kept reminding us that this was her memoir, so coincidences etc that are not accepted in fiction are OK. For example, Marsali tells us that it's perfectly fine that the two road accidents that more or less start and end the book's drama both involve kangaroos, as this is not fiction where such artifices are not accepted. (Bird adds salt to this wound by having the driver involved in the second accident spending time at a pub called The Kangaroo before he sets off on his fateful drive!)

We briefly touched on the allusions to Jonathan Swift (Marsali Swift, and her brother Gulliver), and that Gulliver's travels is also a satire on the state of society.

Late in the meeting, we returned to the meaning of the book, and the first epigram - the issue that the world is going wrong but we are not doing anything. As one member said, the book is about our current existential crisis - the fact that there's a disconnect in our lives between knowing that climate change, in particular, is a critical issue but our lives are too comfortable to act seriously upon it. How many will give up their overseas trips for example? Not many, we ruefully laughed. There was some discussion about what difference individuals can make. There was no resolution to this one!

Overall, most agreed that this is a book in which you can enjoy the ride rather than try to follow all the threads. Not all found it easy to glean its full meaning and intent.

Present: 9 members