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It is 1937. On a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, a beautiful woman who lives mostly in her own mind after the sudden death of Frances and Edith's father. One afternoon two ...
It is 1937. On a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, a beautiful woman who lives mostly in her own mind after the sudden death of Frances and Edith's father. One afternoon two men, Edith's cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive-taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Among the tales they tell is the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh's great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith's life, opening up the possibility of a life beyond the hardscrabble farm life of her village. When they leave, Leopold to return to London and Aram to Armenia, the house feels suddenly empty and Edith misses them fervently.
Two years later, in 1939, Edith sets out on a journey of her own, bringing with her the young son she and Aram conceived, whom he does not know about. Motherhood has clarified Edith-she has become single-minded, unwilling to swerve from her path, no matter what social mores or practical limitations are put in her way. When she is sent to a birthing house to bear Jim, and believes they plan to adopt him out against her will, she sneaks out at dawn and takes him home. She raises him alone, under her sister's disapproving eye and despite the patronizing of Madge Tehoe, her employer at the Sea House hotel. When Madge's brother-in-law Ronnie comes to visit, he tells Edith how easy he has found it to make a life traveling around the world. She finds out how much she'd need to get started, and begins hoarding tips and quietly stealing small sums and useful objects from guests and the hotel.
Edith believes that if she can get to Armenia, she and Aram will find each other. She catches a ship to London, where she gets to know Irina, Leopold's mother. Leopold himself is off at another dig. Irina tries to dissuade her from going to Armenia, but soon Edith boards the Orient Express in Paris for Armenia. On board, she and Jim are curiosities-a single woman and a toddler, traveling alone. A wealthy old man known only, famously, as Mr. Five Percent (for the five percent share he has in various aspects of Armenia's international trade), attempts to seduce her in his compartment, but she escapes and is befriended by Hagop, a textile trader who was made partially lame when his music school was bombed in a dispute between Armenian nationalists and the secret police. Hagop elects himself as Edith's traveling companion, negotiating her into Armenia despite her lack of a visa, and finding her transport and a place to stay in Yerevan, the capital. She moves into the apartment of a famous Armenian poet, an old blind woman known only as Tati, and becomes her caretaker. Hagop and his wife Nevart, a beautiful, caustic pianist embittered by the ending of her career and being put in a wheelchair by the same explosion in which Hagop was injured. Edith remains in Yerevan, enrolling Jim in school, working herself hard caring for Nevart and Tati, enjoying Hagop's companionship, and once sleeping with a nightclub owner named Manouk. Her responsibilities are eased when Nevart begins singing and playing piano at a hotel nightclub for an audience of Russian soldiers, and eventually moves into the hotel full-time. But in January 1943, things start to become more dangerous-Germany and Russia are locked in combat, and Yerevan is increasingly tense with informers and surveillance.
In the first months of 1944 Nevart kills herself, and simultaneously Hagop informs Edith and Jim they must leave, that they are no longer protected from the secret police. He picks them up on the street the afternoon of Nevart's funeral (they did not attend for fear of informers), and puts them in a car with Manouk's cousin, who drives them to the border. On the other side is Leopold. He takes them across Iraq to Syria, elaborating on the Gilgamesh story he had told Edith so many years before, and near Aleppo he installs them in the same orphanage Aram was taken to after his family was killed in the Turkish genocide. As Leopold's Jeep leaves the orphanage, there is an explosion, and Edith and Jim receive word that a British Jeep was blown up by a mine. Edith writes to Irina and receives no answer. They wait there, grieving and listening to news of D-Day and the Russian Front, until finally in April 1945, a year after their arrival in Aleppo, Edith and Jim catch a ride with an Australian transport of soldiers and begin the long journey home. They arrive a year and a half later.
Much has changed in Edith's years of travel. Her "sin" is no longer so glaring now that she has lived beyond iiiiiit, except in the eyes of Frances, who is flirting with fundamentalism. Jim, however, has an impossible time adjusting to what his mother calls "home." His schoolmates call him a bastard and stare at his dark skin and hair, and Sir, his teacher, is an alcoholic autocrat who implies Jim is from "barbarous climes." Frances fixes on him and is convinced Edith is being too soft, as Jim misses more and more school and becomes depressed. When Sir arrives to enroll Jim in a school for intractable boys in Perth, Edith is at work and Frances signs him over. Edith leaves to collect him as soon as she learns about it, enrolling him in a correspondence school at which he excels.
Jim grows up. Edith meets a man at the nursing home where she works, and his companionship proves a balm to Jim's loneliness and restless frustration. Frances meets a young widow named Lee, whose husband has left her alone on their farm, and the two begin working Lee's land together, and soon Frances is living there and they have become romantic partners as well. Ultimately, as Jim graduates from his school and must decide what to do next, he is waiting for some sort of sign as to what his destiny will be-something along the lines of the impetus that caused Edith to leave Australia, or the face of his father, Aram, he imagined in the foliage at the boarding school before Edith arrived to rescue him. Returning home from the failed attempt to visit Frances (who of course thinks manual labor on her and Lee's farm is the answer to Jim's malaise, by which Jim is infuriated), a letter from abroad is waiting on the table that will unlock Jim's future and the possibility that he will become a writer.
A stunning novel which Good Reading called "a small masterpiece," Gilgamesh examines what happens when we strike out into the world, and how, like the wandering king, we find our way home.
It didn't suit her. She was supposed to chat and join in singsongs and pour tea. But she was clumsy and offhand and didn't smile enough. She lacked the sense of charity that lit the faces of the other young women. That afternoon they were all wearing a white gardenia pinned to their coats and, as they entered, a nunlike sweetness filled the vast draughts of the room.
It was a convalescent hospital south of London, a gloomy country house requisitioned for the duration, where the soldiers, patched-up, jumpy, bitter, tottered and prowled like ancient temperamental guests. Frank shared a room with another Australian, an artilleryman from Melbourne, who wept like a baby in his sleep. Frank suffered from insomnia so it didn't disturb him too much. He didn't tell the doctors about the insomnia. Some were kind, but for some reason he found himself infuriated by kindness. He craved isolation. In isolation he would cure himself.
They were days away from Armistice. On the afternoon that Ada came, Frank had expected to be discharged, on the train to London. His leg was officially healed: he'd been waiting all week for the order. Only boredom made him come downstairs for tea.
They should really never have met.
They were singing around the piano, 'Over There' and 'He's Coming Home' and 'We'll Gather Lilacs'. The young women sang in fervid sopranos, harmonising with the men. Most of them, Frank thought, would have lost someone, husband, sweetheart, brother, in these past years. He noticed that Ada had left the group and was looking out a window. He went and stood beside her.
'A bit painful, this old stuff.'
'I never learnt the words.'
Outside was a tennis court, with the nets rolled up. Beyond it black-limbed trees held back the mist.
'What are you going to do when it's over?' He couldn't help looking at her gardenia, desperately lopsided, which was about to slide off the generous slope of her bosom.
'I don't know. Much the same I expect.' She had a flat, composed way of speaking, at odds with her appearance. Her dark hair was so bushy that she had to clutch her hat when she turned to him. She had fiercely sprouting eyebrows, dead white skin, a little silken moustache. She wasn't old, but like him, like all of them, she was no longer young. He had the odd sensation that she was the only teal person in the room.
'What would you like to do?'
'Oh I see, you are joking. Well, I would like to go far away to a country where there will never be another war.'
'That's where I'm going!'
'There is no such country!' The gardenia dropped and she was stooping down to it. Her hat fell off, and her hair uncoiled. Everything about her seemed ready to erupt. He'd never known a woman so precarious.
'There is,' he said, crouching down beside her as she scrabbled for hairpins. 'Come home with me.'
He found her odd, mysterious. She had been orphaned very young, grew up living alone with her older brother. Frank thought this might be the key to her: no one had taught her to be nice. Her brother had died early in the war, at Ypres. She lived with her sister-in-law and little nephew in the top half of a house in Cricklewood. The sister-in-law, Irina, was a White Russian. There were Russian lodgers in the bottom half of the house. It was an unconventional set-up, to say the least.
They had visitors at all hours of the day. Whenever Frank called, there would be a strange hat or cane or pair of galoshes by the stand in the hall. The visitors, men and women, were always Russian. He sat among them in the dark parlour and drank cup after cup of black tea from the brass samovar on the table. They were a lively crowd who soon forgot to speak English in front of him. Ada said little but did not seem out of place. Sometimes she played trains on the floor with her chubby nephew, her hair uncoiling down her creamy neck. Frank, a poetry reader, thought of petals falling. She hardly ever looked his way.
She only seemed to come alive off-stage, with Irina. He heard them laughing in the kitchen, or calling out to one another down the hall. Irina called her Arda, in the Russian way. Ardour. He didn't trust Irina. She was the opposite of Ada, tiny, worldly, elegant in her widow's weeds. She spoke excellent English, having lived in London since 1910. The others had only recently arrived from that debacle in Russia. She was in mourning not only for her English husband, but for her younger brother left behind in Russia, killed on the Russian front. Sorrow gave her a hard edge. There was a shrewd gleam in her eyes when she talked to Frank. He judged her to be clever and domineering, not his sort of woman.
She even dragged Ada off to the Orthodox Church with her. He found this out one Sunday when he visited, and for once there was nobody at home. One of the lodgers let him in, and insisted that he wait. Suddenly Ada ran in alone, in hat and coat, pink-cheeked from the cold. It was ridiculous, she said, standing by the door, as if continuing a conversation, as if she'd known he would be there, she didn't understand a word of the service, she only liked the chants. She wasn't religious, she added shyly, she was a free-thinker like her brother. This pleased Frank, because though raised strictly Methodist he had become an atheist during the war. And then still standing there, she burst out that she was tired of the gossip in the emigre community, everyone knowing your business, she was tired of it all, she wanted to go away and make a life for herself.
Then suddenly she stopped. They had never been alone together before. She started to move towards him. They fell on one another.
There is no wedding photograph, but a few months later, in the spring, someone took a snap of them in front of the house in Cricklewood. They are leaning against a railing, their hips both slightly crooked to the left. Both are hatless. Frank, in cricket whites and pullover, has his hands in his pockets. This is as complacent as he will ever look. Ada rests one hand on his shoulder. Her pose is languid. Already she is pregnant with the first of their two daughters. They aren't smiling but stare evenly at the camera. They look shy and proud and private. Is it the haze of a London spring that gives a dreaminess to the scene? They are proud of their dreams. They are going to take up land in Australia. Fresh air, honest toil, taking orders from no man. Because Frank can't lose the habit of God looking over his shoulder, he feels that the War spared him for this. He has no money but he will find a way. Meanwhile he has promised Ada plants and animals she has never seen before, light so clear you seem to swim in it.
They feel bold and superior, like revolutionaries. They have both just turned thirty. Their passage out is booked.
* * *
Frank joined a government scheme to open up the wilds of southwestern Australia. Land, parcelled into blocks, was given to a group of twenty or thirty settlers who would initially work together to clear each home block and build each other a house. Every man was made a loan by the Agricultural Bank to get him started, repayable over thirty years. Of course, if all went well for you, you could end up owning your own land much sooner, in a matter of five or six years. The scheme was called Group Settlement.
In Frank's group were other ex-soldiers, English and Australian. There was an ex-butcher, ex-blacksmith, ex-grocer, even an exsea captain. All of them had a passion to own their own land. Each farm was 160 acres. They were drawn by ballot. This made Frank nervous. He had a Methodist's revulsion for gambling: he trusted only his own will.
By the time they came to live on their own block their daughters were nearly school age. A son was born but died soon afterwards, while they were still camping in a hut, waiting for their house to be built. 'We will put this behind us,' Frank said to Ada, to stave off his own panic. 'We won't speak of it again.' He dreaded her weeping. She could go quite wildly out of control. He spoke softly. One of the Settlement women was outside at the fire, cooking dinner for them. The hut had a dirt floor and whitewashed hessian walls. He took her hand. Ada kept her eyes closed. 'We have two fine girls.'
Their block was the outermost, cut off from the other farms by a belt of national forest. An afterthought, tacked on at the last minute over some government drawing board. It ran just beyond the dunes of the coast into bushy hillsides ridged with granite boulders and limestone caves. Close to the beach the soil became white with limestone. Only the wattles and melaleucas kept it from blowing into sand. Even at its furthest boundary, deep in the forest, you could hear the echo of the sea. It was the least arable of the blocks, but the most picturesque.
Their nearest neighbour was an old wooden hotel, the Sea House, built high on the escarpment to catch views over the forest to the ocean. On still afternoons Frank and Ada could sometimes hear the tock of a tennis ball and scraps of laughter from drifting guests. It was only half a mile away through the bush, but it was another world, isolated from the district, far away from the life and death struggles of the settlers. Frank despised the guests-city clerks on honeymoon-but Ada liked to take the girls with her and sit in the gardens, like a governess on a nature ramble. It was the only place with any romance in this country, she said.
The district was called Nunderup, but until 1927 it didn't appear on any map because there was nothing there. Then by petitions and subscriptions the settlers managed to erect a wooden hall up the road from the Sea House, for meetings and dances and concerts and the occasional picture show. The milk truck stopped there and the bus to Busselton. This was the Nunderup Hall.
Frank and Ada, or the Clarks as they were known in the district, didn't go to the dances or the pictures. They didn't go to any church service either. They didn't socialise with the other families in the area, the Lewises, McKays, Wards, Robertsons and Rileys. Nobody saw Ada for years at a time. When the girls went to school she turned up once or twice at the end-of-year prize-giving concerts but she didn't help the other women with the supper. She sat in an empty row of seats, her lips flecked with saliva, nervous as a student who has failed a test. Her girls left the other children and sat on either side of her.
Frank came to meetings in the hall as the Depression worsened and more and more farmers couldn't repay their loans. He spoke about being indentured slaves to the government, paying blood money to open up the country for them. He was a stirring speaker, Clarkie, he used to be a schoolteacher before the War.
He built the shed across the seasons of a year. He cut the trees down one spring when he was clearing the hill paddock. With a wedge borrowed from Bert McKay he cut them into slabs: it was a case of finding the right grain, and in the end, like skinning a rabbit, he got the hang of it. He dragged the slabs back to the home block while he still had the horse and chains. All summer they lay drying in the yellow grass. In autumn when the ground had softened, he dug a three-sided trench and stood the slabs up in it, side by side. He cut saplings for beams and poles and laid in a little hoard of corrugated iron. He hoped to roof the space before the winter rains.
But every day there was so much else to do, and nobody to help. He was methodical in everything he did, but slow and clumsy, teaching himself as he went. Some of the other men in the group had farming experience, or had worked with their hands in former life. Practical types. Some had already built a herd up, were picking up a nice little cream cheque each month. A bit of capital helped of course. Time and again before he took the next step he'd have to stop and hire himself out. A month picking potatoes down at Albany. A week here, a week there helping others to seed, in return for the loan of a team and plough. The ten cows he was entitled to from the government (to be paid for later of course) had never thrived. The two most adventurous had broken out and fallen down a gully. Another died calving. He thought he would go into pigs. But first he needed a shelter for them.
He'd never built anything on his own before. He didn't like to ask the other men for one more thing, even advice. Late at night he sat up in the kitchen working out how to do it, drawing diagrams on the backs of Agricultural Bank envelopes.
Sometimes when he sat at the table and saw the lamplight pooled over his scraps of paper, he thought that this was the only terrain he could ever really work. Beyond the light were his books ranged along the top shelf of the dresser. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Scott, Stevenson and Dickens. He didn't have time to read them now, but he felt their presence. It crossed his mind that this was where he was really most at home, in the idea of things.
Winter was well and truly over before he came to finish the shed, perched on the roof, hammering in the last nails. It was spring again, and still no pigs wallowed in the boggy earth of the clearing. He'd been working all day on the roof, it was late now, almost dark. He was always late. Across the clearing Ada and the girls sat watching from the verandah steps. There was a sense of ceremony in their waiting. All winter long the roofless shed had sat like a small ruined monument in their landscape. Even now it didn't look quite like other piggeries. Even they could see that. It was too high, too tottery, like one of their skinny cows. None of them spoke.
Out of the corner of his eye Frank could see them on the steps. Their pale female faces, pale pinafores glowed in the half light. Maybe this was what made him lose concentration for a moment. Sitting there like a row of birds with their beaks open! He was dog-tired, stiff, sunburnt, from crouching all day up here. He took a swipe at the final nail and mysteriously-there were many mysteries in the course of Frank's carpentry-smashed straight down on his thumb.
He dropped the hammer with a clatter, and fell foward, the whole structure swaying a little beneath him. He raised his head and howled God! The dog barked crazily at the foot of the ladder. He sat still, clutching his hand, his eyes closed. The little girls thought he was crying, and stole towards him as he descended the ladder. Ada came to meet him with a teatowel she had grabbed. Something in her face made him wheel away from her and stride off into the bush, grabbing the axe as he went. The dog sloped after him, its ears flat.
'Another pair of hands.' That's what he said to himself as he slashed his way, one handed, through the bush.
Excerpted from Gilgamesh by Joan London Copyright © 2003 by Joan London. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 26, 2003
Gilgamesh is the marvellously crafted story of a young woman who embarks on a journey to find the father of her illegitimate son in far away Armenia. Choosing to escape her lonely stifling existence on a remote desolate farm in Australia, Edith's decision is particularly risky in the turmoil preceding WWII. This tale is a rich tapestry woven with the themes of personal choice, shame, rejection, friendship, self-sacrifice, disappointment, and acceptance. Joan London's book is a rare treasure worth every moment of reading.
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Posted September 26, 2003
My God in heaven. I'll have to read this one again, and possibly again after that. Too rich in details NOT to. To beautifully scripted NOT to. The cast of characters have all become a part of my soul. This is a rare and dignified book. I cannot wait until London's next novel.
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Posted March 26, 2014
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