Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 248 pages; 2009.
Valley of Grace, the latest novel by Australian author Marion Halligan, is one of the most exquisitely designed books I’ve had the pleasure of reading — and holding — in a long, long time. It’s slightly wider than your normal literary novel (15.2cm, as opposed to the more regular 12.8cm), has fold-in covers and is typeset in a beautiful font, PastonchiMT.
The cover image of a Parisian streetscape, complemented by a gold border, is from Getty Images and the cover design is by Sandy Cull. It recently won the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book at the 58th Annual Book Design Awards announced in Sydney. A well deserved award, in my humble opinion, because for me, the look and feel of this book only enhanced my reading experience of it. I can’t help but think that with the advance of digital books, this kind of experience — taking joy in the beauty of an object — will be lost forever.
But does that all matter, when it’s the content upon which we should judge a book? Fortunately, Valley of Grace delivers on the inside as much as it delivers on the outside. Indeed, it’s a gorgeous story, written in the most exquisite (am I using that word too much?) prose that makes for an entirely effortless read.
The book is marketed as a novel, but like many books I’ve been reading lately, it’s actually a series of interwoven short stories featuring characters that knock and rub against one another throughout the narrative. The framework which ties them all together is modern day Paris, which comes alive in Halligan’s pitch-perfect descriptions of buildings and streetscapes, little cafes and chocolate shops. (She also takes pains to describe food in such a way that if you’re not hungry when reading, you’ll be ravenous afterwards.)
But the real “theme” of this novel, if that is the right word to use, is babies: Halligan’s small cast of characters — all well-to-do, well-heeled Parisians — either hankers after them, cannot have them or does not know what to do with them. There is Fanny Picart, who works in an Antiquarian bookshop (the descriptions of the shop and the books are gorgeous), who marries the man of her dreams but fails to fall pregnant; there is Sabine, who turns a blind eye to her academic husband’s affairs, but is then expected to arrange the termination of any resulting unwanted pregnancies; and there is Luc, the owner of the bookshop, who is in a committed gay relationship but is asked to father a child for a pair of lesbian friends.
Each of these characters has battles of conscience to overcome, as they reconcile their reality with their dreams. For instance, when Fanny, who is so desperate to become a mother, finally realises her ambition (and not in the way she quite planned), she has to come to terms with the fact that having a child does not necessarily result in happiness. And even Sabine, who initially comes across as slightly cold, aloof and foolish (why on earth is she assisting her husband’s libertarian lifestyle when it so clearly makes her unhappy?) has her views turned upside down, when she becomes a kind of secret, substitute mother for one of his “bastard” children.
On the surface, much of this book reads like a beautiful, modern-day fairy tale, but just like the best of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales there are hidden meanings and moral messages if you dig a little deeper. This is a lovely, gentle, easy-to-read book, rich with symbolism, and I thank Sue from Whispering Gums for bringing it to my attention. I urge you to read Sue’s review for another take on the same book.