Elemental is Amanda Curtin’s second novel and it is a huge work, richly researched and steeped in atmosphere. It takes the reader on a geographical and chronological journey – from the isolated fishing village of Roanhaven on the north-east coast of Scotland at the turn of the twentieth century, to the vast, blue skies of Fremantle, Western Australia, during war-time. It ends in 2011, in the hills around Perth.
Meggie Tulloch, nee Duthie, sets out to write her life story for her grand-daughter, Laura. Meggie writes as if she is talking to Laura, and her phrases sing with the dialect of her childhood. So well does Amanda Curtin personify this wee Scottish lass, I kept wondering if she had grown up with the dialect spoken around her. The style reminded me of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture and this novel could well be the Scottish-Australian equivalent, for the prose is equally as lyrical. The novel includes an expansive glossary at the end, and I was torn between continuing to read the story and hoping the meaning would come with the context, or flicking back and forth between the chapters and the glossary. In the end I used the glossary minimally, and stayed in the story. It reminded me of how I read Shakespeare or watch a foreign film with subtitles – it’s distracting at first and I feel all adrift, but I’m soon swept away by the story and forget to notice the language.
My copy of Elemental is full of underlining and scribblings, gems I don’t want to forget, and my defacement of a novel is directly proportional to my pleasure in it. Meggie Duthie/Tulloch is quite a philosopher, and her turn of phrase is delightful:
‘… When things change, something new enters the space you live in, something you must move with, turn to, chafe against, until you ease a new shape for yourself. But something is lost, too, in the changing, some small piece of your world gone for good.’
‘Lambsie, there are moments in your life when it seems like the skin covering the core of you is peeled away and a new one, a harder one, begins to grow.’
And there’s plenty more.
Much like the weather and the coastline of the North Sea, life in isolated Roanhaven is rugged and harsh. Lives are governed by nature – by the weather, by the sea, by the elements. Cold, pregnancy, illness, insanity, death are all part of the everyday, and there’s very little that can be done to change it.
This is alien to our comfortable first-world lives in the twenty-first century. These days, we control the climate in which we live as much as we can; it doesn’t control us. We heat or cool our homes and workplaces so we don’t have to feel the heat or the cold, and we drive to and from work in air-conditioned cars. Our lives are no longer at the mercy of nature — modern medicine can cure almost everything, and if it can’t, researchers are working on it. We genetically engineer our crops, our animals, and even our children. We don’t have to get pregnant and if we do, we don’t have to accept it. If someone dies young, we are angry because it’s not fair. We like the road ahead of us to be straight and smooth, with no hidden humps or sudden turns.
I’m not saying this is all bad — some of it is very good — but as I read this story, part of me yearned for a time when we let the earth and nature shape our lives and didn’t try to mould it to suit us. I yearned, too, for the human nature of the past, one that accepted that we are just another being on this earth, and here only fleetingly, that tragedy and loss are a part of life, and that despite its harshness, life can still be good.
There’s much more I could write about this novel – about the strength of the women and their resilience, about female friendships, about bravery versus recklessness – but I will finish here. This story is carefully sculpted and shaped and will satisfy readers much like a fine dinner in which each item on the menu has been carefully chosen to complement the other. Highly recommended reading.
It has to be Meggie herself, especially the young Meggie. She found life in Roanhaven to be cruel and mostly not to her liking, and knew she wanted to leave. She realised the way out of a bleak existence and did what she had to do, watched and learned from others and their mistakes, kept her mouth shut when necessary, worked hard, obeyed the rules, yet never lost sight of her goals or her own worth. Nor did she lose sight of love.
(Disclaimer: I am red-headed, too, so am perhaps a little biased.)
The devastating yet striking scene involving Meggie’s sister, Kitta, in a wild, grey ocean has stayed with me. This was so vivid and poignant. I won’t give away anymore here …
I have two:
‘And suddenly I know that I will never be the same again because I have felt freedom in my lungs.’
Oh, how I know that feeling of inhaling freedom, Meggie …
‘They are different, you know, memory and memories. Memory is the way you know it’s Tuesday or what you ate for dinner last night, or that you’ve already bought a new pair of slippers so whyever would you go to town and buy another pair? But memories are the things that make you who you are, even the ones you are most afraid to look at square in the face. And the funny thing is, I am losing my memory but not my memories.’
May that be the case for all of us who cherish our memories.
Elemental, by Amanda Curtin, UWA Press 2013 $29.95
I have one more review to complete the Franklin level of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. Any suggestions?