One winter morning in 2010, Elsie Gormley falls over on the floor of her suburban Brisbane home. In her pain, Elise finds herself parting ways with the house that she has so lovingly tended to for over sixty years. Ensconced a fortnight later in a bright new assisted-living facility with a view down the Brisbane River, Elsie recalls the day she and her husband, Clem, moved and when their home was fresh and new. She thinks about the great flood of 1974, and the year her twins, Don and Elaine were born in 1941. The house has witnessed all of Elsie’s tempters and moods, as well as her husband's and her children.
The new owners--Lucy, Ben, and their little boy, Tom--love the house. In the past years, they’ve been all over the place: Washington, London, and back to Sydney. Now they’re embarking on an integral part of realizing the great Australian dream of “the kid, the house, and the mortgage.” At first, Lucy is distracted by the house’s warmth and piqued by the notion that Elsie’s husband had died (“no one could quite remember when”). She’s also surprised to discover that Elsie has left around the floorboards a pile of pretty doilies, a series of delicate white linen runners.
Beyond the jacarandas’ purple brilliance, Lucy busies herself with the usual tasks and rhythms. The yard is full of new birds, bugs, and butterflies, “wide and strong and golden in the light. While Ben remembers so many things about the city he left almost thirty years earlier--a place alive with history and geography--Lucy suffers from a sort of wrong-footedness. She can sense Elsie’s earlier moments. She tells us that after she left her old boyfriend, Ferdi Klim, she felt “as if she could fly.” She’s terrified of motherhood, her crazy mood swings gravitating between love and dread.
For much of Hay’s story, Elsie and Lucy come across as a product of what they think society expects of them: mother and wife, homemaker. Both bend to these personas without really understanding why none truly satisfy them. Hay gives us a bifurcated view of Elsie’s life as her mind wanders and slips to another time and place. It’s nicer to wander off into her memories instead of holding them “at arm’s length.” She remembers Clem, Elaine, and Don, back in the summer of 1947. Donny had made a go of it, but Elaine had “tripped up.” Elise admits her real world has “submerged by a strange wash of time.” Clem's voice says "We’ve got something special you and me,” a recognition that for a time, having a husband and child was considered to be the making of women like Elsie.
While Elsie battles with what else she could she have been or done, Lucy is a more complicated shell who plays her personality traits like a recording. She thinks about Ferdi and the sense of freedom she experienced when she hung out in bars and listened to her favorite rock bands. On the surface, Lucy might be preoccupied with all of Elsie’s things (that have since been packed up and taken away) when all she really wants to do is just sink inside herself. When Elsie is invited to pose for her neighbor, artist Ida Lewis, she worries about being unfairly judged by Clem. There’s a faint hint of a homoerotic nature: Elsie thinks of Ida’s messy room, the light through the windows, and the polite discussion of divorce, the beauty of Ida’s painting. Ida’s generosity initiates a chain of events that will change Elsie’s life in ways she cannot even imagine.
Hay’s talent is her focus on the internal lives of Clem and Ben. Beyond the flash of the blue-shadowed blackbird holding him in its gaze, Clem thinks about his grown son and his daughter, now a mum herself. He remembers the first time he saw Elsie on the day war was declared in 1939, stomping through Brisbane, trying to feel like a grownup and wondering if he should enlist. Forty years later, Ben is also preoccupied with the idea of fatherhood. He seemed always at some remove. Family life itself has somehow, always been beyond him, until the reality of parenthood “mushroomed the size of his emotions.” Ben thinks of his single mother living in Brisbane in the early 1960s, the memory a blank canvas that Lucy will desperately try to imagine and enrich. Hay’s novel is delineated by the ebb and flow of household items, of people’s lives. Will Elsie come to terms with her past? How will Lucy change her future? After Lucy embarks on a befuddled plane flight to Hobart, Hay jumps to Elsie, so in love with young, handsome Clem.
Like a lyrical essay with its poetic language streaming in the reader’s imagination, Hay ties her story together with delicate associations and subtle metaphorical images that mesmerize, stimulate the soul, and leave the reader with a better understanding of two women who love and care for their husbands and families but yearn to free themselves from their ordinary lives.