Book review: Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame

Personal_Effects_FNL_02_mainEdnYears ago, on the first festival panel I ever took part in, there was a question from the audience that I had heard many times before and have often heard since: Why don’t writers write about happy things, happy relationships? That first time, another panel member, the prodigiously talented Sonya Hartnett, replied: Because happiness is beige. This is not true in life, of course, but I could see Hartnett’s point when it comes to fiction. When we write narrative, we place our characters under pressure in order to explore who they are, to see what they’ll do. In fact, the narrative arc of fiction is sometimes described as: Something happens. Then things get worse.

That is not to say that fiction must deal solely in sadness, nor that happy couples are unknown in novels. When The Guardian posed the question Can happy marriage ever be interesting in books? earlier this year, readers were quick to offer examples (including a favourite of mine, Carol Shields’s Unless). But, on balance, these are less common, because when things get worse, things often get sad, too. And relationships may be the cause or the casualty of that sadness.

I thought of this when reading Personal Effects, the debut novel of Carmel Macdonald Grahame, because at the heart of this beautiful work of fiction is that rare thing: a very long, very happy marriage.

I have looked at Ross countless times and been struck by the depths of our separateness. I am not you is a thought that still has the power to enchant, easily becomes a desire to say, Come here, you. He has been the great force for tenderness, generosity, consideration and kindness in my life … The result, as it turns out, is this mutual symbiosis that never ceases to astonish me and yet is so perfectly ordinary. We have become These Two, You Two, Those Two. Ross’n’Lilith. Lilith’n’Ross. You and I. Us. We.

Personal Effects is not an extravagantly happy novel, however. There is joy in abundance, but grief, too, as the novel’s narrator, Lilith, meditates on the pushes and pulls, the ordinary and extraordinary, in the life of an individual, a relationship, a family.

Lilith, a ceramic artist and former teacher, and Ross, a geologist, are middle-aged empty-nesters whose two adult daughters are making their own way in the world. And now they’re faced with the prospect of, once again, relocating overseas because of the exigencies of Ross’s work in the resources industry. This latest international move is a return—to Calgary, Canada, where they lived many years before.

The narrative progression of the novel is non-linear and almost tidal in the way it moves in slow swells and glancing ripples, gathering in meaning and depth. Things happen, but the circuitous structure means that crucial events from the past, events that have shaped Lilith, are withheld, to be woven into the story when she finds the words to relate them. This sense of holding back is not merely narrative, either; Lilith knows that survival sometimes depends on things being hidden:

You live in an intimate regime with a man you love and your two daughters, but not even they need to know everything there is to know about you. Not everything can be told.

There is artistry here, in the melding of substance and form.

The quote above hints at ambivalences that the neat term ‘happy marriage’ cannot accommodate. Moving overseas for Ross’s work means the sacrifice of Lilith’s teaching career. Suddenly she is ‘a fully fledged dependent’. In an impressive scene showing a gender divide between two people bound together by love, history and respect, Lilith says:

I have no money in my purse and no prospect of putting any there. You have money in your wallet all the time. Money in this day and age is what keeps body and soul together, and now I have to ask you for it. I have to ask.

The final italicised ask comes as a cry, a humiliation, a protest at frayings in the fabric of a relationship between equals. Such cries can destroy or save, and this one brings for Lilith the realisation that ‘I have to find other, unexpected ways of being independent.’

The Pinnacles

The Pinnacles

One of the pleasures of the novel comes from its descriptions of place—Lilith’s childhood home of Cervantes (a small coastal town of Western Australia about 200 kilometres north of Perth, famous for its proximity to the unique limestone formations known as The Pinnacles), Rottnest Island (a holiday island off Perth with a dark history) and wintry Calgary—and the association of place with notions of home and belonging as Lilith contemplates yet another relocation overseas. As she observes, memories cannot be uncoupled from place:

… everything that happens, happens somewhere, a self-evident fact that strikes me as significant and overlooked. Memories insist on staging themselves, so events, moments, periods of a life come back with their mise en scène.

An image that is introduced early in the novel (page 8) is of the mosaic:

Spode_Bl_Room_Background_Cropped-758x749Pique assiette mosaics, for example, are a mode of recomposition. Like fabric applied to a quilt, pieces of a grandmother’s broken cup, say, can be arranged and rearranged, each bringing its particular accidental shape to the whole and determining form. You take damage and convert it into something that will differently endure. You take what is old and preserve it. You revel in disparity as much as harmony. You transform, reconfigure, complete … You take the past and send it, refashioned into the future.

This evocative passage serves as metaphor for the non-linear structure already discussed, and feels apt coming from Lilith the ceramicist. But the full weight, the richness, of the image is not realised until near the end—and I won’t spoil the impact of that discovery by saying any more here.

Personal Effects is a novel to savour, to rest face-down on the arm of your chair for a pause to allow reflection on what you’ve just read, to hug because it has articulated something true and special and perfect.

Carmel Macdonald Grahame was once my writing tutor, and many years ago she and I belonged to a small writing group for a time, and in both these capacities she taught me infinitely valuable lessons about writing. In Personal Effects, she has continued the lesson.

Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame (UWA Publishing, 2014)
ISBN 978 1 74258 534 5
You can read an excellent review by Lisa Hill here and Annabel Smith’s Q&A with Carmel Macdonald Grahame here.

awwbadge_2014This is my third review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.




Filed under Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

23 responses to “Book review: Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame

  1. terrific review Amanda; so good in fact, that I want to run out and buy this novel right now. I will at least add it to the long list of TBRs, and maybe wiggle it up to the top 🙂

  2. marlish glorie

    Thanks you for this beautiful book recommendation Amanda. I’ve just ordered a copy from U.W.A. press and it’s on it’s way! And can’t wait to read Personal Effects.

  3. Thank you for this delicious review Amanda, and I too will run out and buy it. Carmel was my writing tutor too, years ago at ECU and she was one of my Masters thesis examiners. She was kind and thoughtful and acute. This book sounds lovely, and I look forward to it.

  4. Sounds like a book well worth reading. Great review, too, by the way!

  5. annabelsmith

    Great review Amanda. You are right about resting it on the armchair to reflect – it rewards slow reading.

    At PWF this year, Martin Amis (perhaps quoting someone else, if I remember correctly) said happiness ‘writes white’ ie it doesn’t show up on the page. I thought it was a great way to describe it.

  6. What a full and thoughtful review. The opening question about ‘happiness’ in novels is one that is really important.

  7. Thanks for the mention, Amanda, and I shall return the favour!

  8. Pingback: Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  9. Lovely post. I think I’m going to start smashing some of my great grandmother’s old, damaged teacups next weekend.

  10. marlish glorie

    Yoo Hoo Amanda! Received my copy of Personal Effects in the post yesterday! And, of course, had to have a sneak preview of it last night. Looks like a gem of a book. Again, many thanks for the recommendation. x

  11. marlish glorie

    Ah ha! Adding clairvoyant to your bow now, eh? Amanda? And you’d be right, but I’ll leave the last words to the wonderful, Carmel Macdonald Grahame.
    “I am reaching an age when looking back on beginnings makes a particular kind of sense. In fact, remembering strikes me as a kind of subsidence: certain fragments shove their way to the surface while others are left behind, a bit like islands.”
    Personal Effects by Carmel Macdonald Grahame U.W. A. Press 2014

  12. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge—2014 wrap-up | looking up/looking down

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