‘When it Rains’ by Maggie Mackellar

Whenitrains

2010, 223 p

Right at the end of this book the author, Maggie Mackellar, tells us what she has set out to do:

At times I feel like a voyeur in my own life.  What right do I have to portray these events, to try to place them in a frame I might understand?  I return to the question asked by Anne Carson of Euripides’ tragedies: why is tragedy so important as an art form?  Her answer brings me up against my own terrible truth. Tragedy is important because it enables us to imagine our own reactions in a dark well of horror.  It lets us watch others suffer.  By watching, we are prepared. By watching, we place a frame around our world and pace its boundaries.  We guard against unknown horrors that call to us from beyond our walls.  I watch so that I might know, and write so I might be understood. But my terrible truth is that no matter how carefully I place that frame, no matter how deeply I dive under the sea, I will never really understand why. (p216)

As readers, we have been watching a tragedy unfold as this young widow, historian, mother, daughter packs up her Sydney life and academic career to return to her grandmother’s home in a small outbook town with her two young children. She has come undone with grief.  Her husband  had committed suicide, four years earlier, leaving her with a five year old daughter and an unborn son.  Her husband (for this is how she refers to him throughout)  had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, when he absconded and killed himself. She had been many miles away, unable to reach him in the depths of his illness and frightened by his violence. Her mother was there for the birth of now father-less child, and it was her mother who taught her to love her new baby:

It was my mother’s hands that received my baby boy as he slipped from my body. She held him and sang to him, her hands firm around him, swaddled him, patted him, learnt him…. It was a relief to let her hold him.  To watch her loving him. I followed her lead.  This baby, whom I’d sheltered and who’d grown stronger within me even as his father’s mind was splintering; this baby, who was my constant companion through trauma and despair, had finally arrived. I didn’t fall for him as instantly as I did for Lottie…. In the end it was my mother who taught me to love him.  She held him high, she held him to her.  (p. 17)

Then suddenly her mother died, struck down by a fast-moving cancer.  Her grief for her mother’s death was not alloyed by anger and a sense of betrayal as her response to her husband’s death had been.  Her mother’s presence and assistance had been the rope that tethered her to the semblance of a career and single motherhood, and with the cutting of that connection, it just all became too hard: the child-care, the teaching, the marking, the academic hamster-wheel. She took leave of absence from her job and eventually resigned, knowing the significance of turning her back on a job as an early-career researcher and lecturer at Sydney Uni.

She returns to her grandparent’s pastoral property in Central Western New South Wales, her mother’s childhood home and a place that has happy memories for her.  Her aunt and uncle have taken over the farm, and she knits herself into small-town country life with the  primary school, the Tuesday Ladies tennis club, sheep, tractors, horses, dogs, chooks and snakes.  In many ways she is fortunate: she steps back into an extended family network; she has the financial resources to take the children to Europe for seven weeks for a holiday (brave lady!) and academic projects seem to come to her, instead of having to seek them out.

Her outback country life is juxtaposed against her memories of a six-month trip she and her husband took to Alaska when she was twenty-three years old and unexpectedly pregnant.  They had rock-climbed and kayaked in the wilderness, then lived for three months in a tiny shack outside a small Alaskan town. It had been a “shape-altering” trip that underscored her husband’s physicality as they talked about the future, study, life with a small child.  And now, as she watches their children fit into their new life in the red dust of the NSW outback, without him there, Alaska seems very far away.

The blurb on the back of the book describes her as “a brilliant new talent”, but I’d met her on the page before and even blogged unwittingly about her here.  She talks about her academic work, and I know the SLV manuscript room that she describes and, because I’m a historian of the Port Phillip district, I know of the people she’s researching.  She brings her skills as historian and academic to this memoir as well.  She tells us that

After he died, I sought clarity by writing in strict chronological order the events that led to his death.  I took each day, sketched its beginnings and end, recalled each mood, read into every silence some sort of message.  I wanted to trace the trajectory of his breakdown, to look for clues about spaces into which I could have stepped and saved him.  I wanted his past to speak to me.  As I wrote, what emerged was not clarity, nor understanding, nor peace; what was left was a chaotic scrawl filled with pain- and, looking back, an inevitable end (p. 5)

In this book, she has left strict chronological order behind and instead spirals around her story. The book is written as a series of short chapters, mostly in the present tense, that read a bit like newspaper columns in that each one seems self-contained with apparent closure in the final paragraph of each one.  But you turn the page, and still it goes on – just as she must.  As one chapter follows another chapter, she is still circling warily around her pain but gradually stepping away from it as well.  The academic is always there, making connections with other writers and literature, and her observation that she is a “voyeur in her own life” is apt.  There is much pain here, but there’s a detachment and abstraction as well.  A memoir is a construction, and I was very aware of the layers in this beautifully written, honest, intelligent book.

awwbadge_2014 I guess I’m still doing this Challenge although I’ve probably reached my target by now.  Nonetheless, I’ll still post my review to the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge.

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6 responses to “‘When it Rains’ by Maggie Mackellar

  1. Oh yes, you are still doing it for the challenge! Completing the challenge doesn’t mean you have to stop. It just means you’ve overachieved! It would be good though if you marked your completion on the challenge site.

    I think I heard this author interviewed on Radio National some time ago. Such a sad story but it sounds like she’s written it with style. You are right that “memoir is a construction” – and it sounds like this memoir has an interesting one? Does she talk at all about why she took the approach she did?

    • She talks about the inadequacy of a linear, chronological approach, but not specifically about why she has adopted this circular approach as a literary decision. I suspect that it reflects her own emotional frame of mind. She’s a good writer.

      • Sounds like one I should think of. I must say I rather like it when authors of non-fiction discuss the approach they take – but it sounds like her comment is enough, alongside the evidence, to demonstrate why she did what she did.

  2. Mackellar has recently released a follow-up memoir – again beautifully written but not as powerful and evocative as this one. Resident Judge, your phrase ‘…spirals around her story…’ is wonderful and very apt. I loved When it Rains and it is definitely worthy of a place in the TBR pile.

  3. Pingback: November 2014 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  4. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 Finished | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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