Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson

This short novel was published in 1978 and I must have read it in the 80s some time and forgotten about it because when I started reading it some images were familiar. What stayed with me were the parts of the novel set on Sydney Harbour in a 1920s bohemian household. Reading the novel now, I was much more taken by the complexities of the elderly narrator, Nora Porteous.

The novel starts with Nora returning to Australia as an old woman after thirty of forty years away living in London. The return to her childhood home in Queensland, after the death of her sister, sparks memories both comfortable and uncomfortable. So far, so not very extraordinary, but there is something about the novel that has made it a favourite for many readers, and the best known of Jessica Anderson’s works. I put it down to the strength of Nora’s voice, the controlled, beautiful writing and a sense of, not so much nostalgia, but of a sad, defiant unearthing of the past – I’m sure the Germans have a name for that. There is also a wonderful structure to the work; I haven’t often seen the interweaving of the past and the present done so seamlessly.

Nora is such a successful character because she is unsentimental; she has always been an outsider – as a child in her family, and as a young adult making a disastrous marriage to a husband who never wanted anything more than a conventional wife. Nora casts a critical eye on her younger self, her self-effacement, but also her coldness to those she thought ‘ordinary’. Once Nora escaped from her marriage, and from Australia, the reader is led to believe she finally found her place – the companions at ‘no.6’ to whom she can say anything, amongst who she is finally ‘understood’. But we are not quite sure why Nora has returned to Australia now, and slowly we find out.

It’s unsettling, but Nora’s humour and sardonic attitude brings the reader along. Jessica Anderson was 52 when Tirra Lirra was published yet it is a convincing portrayal of a woman at the end of her life. In fact, so convincing is the whole novel, that many people (including me) thought it was autobiographical, but this doesn’t quite add up. Nora was in her mid-thirties when she leaves Australia to go to London in the lead up to WWII, so she would have been born around the turn of the century, while Anderson was born in 1916.

Geordie Williamson, in his blog entry on Jessica Anderson’s work (a retrospective prompted by her death in 2010), ponders why her work is not better known beyond Tirra Lirra. He thought part of it was her own ambivalence about her work, part because her work (though not vast) was too varied for a devoted following. And she may have fallen foul of the success of Tirra Lirra with readers wanting ‘more of the same’.

I’m very glad I was reintroduced to Anderson’s novel (in tone similar to an amalgam of Helen Garner and Elizabeth Jolley) and will seek out more of her work.

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