Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Orchard Thieves’ by Elizabeth Jolley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 132 pages; 1997.

The orchard thieves of the title of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novella aren’t bad people stealing fruit trees but two little boys who pinch fruit to gobble up when they are staying at their grandmother’s house.

This rather delightfully told story is essentially about inheritance and taking what you think is rightfully yours — perhaps prematurely — and it’s framed around a grandmother who has a relatively large property in the outer suburbs of Perth.

It’s also an insightful tale about grandmothers — in particular, the love they hold for their children and their grandchildren — and what it is like to grow old, to look back on the past and to fear for the future of the people you will leave behind.

Pausing still outside the door, the grandmother wanted to go into the room. She thought of kneeling down beside the children. She longed to brush their soft hair with her lips. Sometimes she prayed inside herself that they would stay small and clean and good. Wholesome was a better word. For ever.

A tale in three parts

In The Orchard Thieves, the unnamed grandmother lives with her eldest daughter (who is dubbed “the aunt” throughout), who we might unkindly call a spinster. The youngest daughter is married and lives nearby (her two sons regularly stay over), while the middle daughter lives in London with a young daughter.

The story is divided into three parts — Three Miles to One Inch, The Orchard Thieves, and Three Times One-Third — but they could easily be seen as Before, During and After the arrival of the middle daughter who turns up and disrupts the pattern of everyone’s lives.

This daughter is pregnant but doesn’t have a partner and hasn’t told her family that there’s a baby on the way (her mother, the grandmother, has all kinds of theories including the possibility her daughter is a lesbian because she isn’t aware of any man on the scene). The daughter expects she can move into her old childhood bedroom, but neither her mother nor her older sister like the idea. The grandmother would prefer it if her daughter lived elsewhere and to perhaps go back to England if necessary.

But the middle daughter is a schemer and she thinks it might be a good idea to sell the property and to divide the proceeds between the three siblings. She tells the older sister, the aunt, it’s about time she talks to their mother about death and dying. “Old people need to be helped to let go,” she insists.

“There’s a fortune here, right here under our feet,” the middle sister said. “Once this house is knocked down, there’s enough space here for several units and a swimming pool.” The middle sister wanted a sale, she said, and she wanted — needed — one-third, a one-third share. Surely they both wanted what she wanted.

But this idea gets put on hold when the middle daughter gives birth to a baby in the house and then succumbs to what is likely to be neonatal depression (although this term is never used). The grandmother must then step in to look after the baby as well as the little granddaughter, all the while fearing for her grandsons, who she hopes will “not continue to be robbers”, and her older daughter, who she fears is lonely.

Eventually, things come to a head and everything gets more or less resolved. The grandmother realises that what happens to her loved ones is largely beyond her control, that her grandsons, during their lives, will “do something perfect and noble and wonderful and something absolutely appalling”, and that her daughters will get on with the business of living. And this is all nicely summed up in the last line:

The grandmother, putting the baby up to her shoulder and feeling the softness of the baby’s cheek against her own, remarked that there was really only one week between a bad haircut and a good haircut.

Fable-like writing

There’s something about the prose style and the telling of the story that lends The Orchard Thieves a fable-like quality. No names — of people or places — are used throughout the text, except when the grandmother looks at her maps from her old life in England and she traces the contours of rivers and towns with which she was familiar in her childhood.

This is further evoked by references to Ceres, a Greek goddess of fertility, motherly relationships and the growth of food plants, and Demeter who wished to make her grandson immortal by placing him in a fire, an action his mother did not understand and prevented. When the middle daughter runs a bath for her baby that is far too hot, it’s hard not to see the parallels that Jolley is making between Greek mythology and the life of the grandmother.

The Orchard Thieves is a rather beautiful book, rather different to other Elizabeth Jolley novels I have read, but one that explores common themes in her work about isolation, ageing and family ties.

I could write much more about it, but I won’t. I urge you to read it if you can find a copy. I suspect it is long out of print — I picked mine up second hand and lo-and-behold it’s a signed edition, something I didn’t realise when I bought it and only noticed when I sat down to read it on the weekend.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this novel.

I read this book for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 4 Week, which celebrates women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

And because the English-born author settled in Perth, this book qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley

the well

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 234 pages; 2007.

I first read The Well, by Elizabeth Jolley, in the late 1980s, when my sister pressed it into my hand and told me I would love it. I have only vague memories of it, so when Lisa at ANZLitLovers announced she was going to host an Elizabeth Jolley week, I knew this was the book I was going to read and review.

First published in 1986, The Well was Jolley’s seventh novel (she came to writing late; her first book was published in her early 50s). It earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s an exquisitely written tale about love, loneliness and growing old, but it’s also about trust — how we earn it and how easy it is to throw away — and of two women struggling to maintain an unconventional relationship in a strict patriarchal society.

Hit and run

Set on a remote sheep and wheat farm in rural Western Australia, the book opens in dramatic fashion. One night, returning from a party in town, Miss Hester Harper and her young companion Katherine are driving home too fast when they accidentally hit a creature on the farm track. They dispose of the body by pushing it down the farm’s unused well, which is covered over with a tin roof.

At this stage in the story the reader does not know whether the body is human or animal. And we do not know why the two women have chosen to keep the incident from the authorities. All we know is that both are frightened, that both are perplexed by what has happened because there’s “never ever anyone along this track”.

Then Jolley does something rather wonderful. Nine pages in, having captured our attention, she shifts the action back to the past and gives us Hester and Katherine’s back story. As an example of how to create suspense in a novel, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that matches this powerful master stroke.

Unconventional relationship

Much of the story focuses on Hester and Katherine’s unconventional, almost symbiotic, relationship. Hester is a wealthy and eccentric middle-aged woman who has inherited the family farm. She’s got a lame leg and uses a walking stick. She’s never married and never had children. She lives very much in the past, recalling travels through Europe with a German nanny, whom she adored, and looks down upon the local townsfolk, thinking their concerns and interests petty and trivial. She’s independent and resents being told what to do.

Shortly before her father’s death, Hester invites 15-year-old Katherine, who grew up in an orphanage, to live at the farm. The decision is an impulsive one, made “partly out of pity and partly from fancy”, but the pair get along well.

She treated Katherine with an affectionate though severe generosity. She did not regard herself as a mother or even as an aunt. She did not attempt to give any name to the relationship. She realised quite quickly that she was possessive.

Later, when Hester goes a bit mad spending money on frivolous things, her financial adviser, Mr Bird, encourages her to rent out the homestead to someone better able to run the farm. Slightly resentful that she’s being told what to do, Hester and Katherine set up home in a little stone cottage on a remote corner of the farm, free from prying eyes and busy bodies.

Living in this rather splendid isolation, the pair become more eccentric and more dependent on one another than ever before. They pass their time playing silly games, listening to music, cooking, gardening, dancing, knitting and doing embroidery. They are happy.

But reality soon intrudes when Hester realises her status in the local community — as a fine, upstanding woman running a successful farm — is on the slide. She continues to cling to money — and to spend it — when her resources can no longer support the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed.

And then, when locals begin commenting on Katherine’s vitality and marriageability, Hester’s possessiveness kicks into overdrive. She does not want to lose “ownership” of the young woman she loves so much. The impending visit of one of Katherine’s friends from her orphanage days also threatens Hester’s sense of proprietary.

Collision course

This all comes to a head, of course, when the pair collide with the mysterious creature on the farm track in the opening pages of this book. Hester’s decision to hide the body in the well represents a major shift in the relationship between her and Katherine, which slowly disintegrates over the days and weeks that follow.

Their individual reactions are telling: Katherine, a hopeless romantic, believes she’s going to marry and live happily ever after with the creature trapped in the well; Hester, who does not want Katherine to get married and leave her, takes to her bed with a crippling migraine, dreaming up ways to save their relationship.

The Well is ultimately a dark book about holding on to love at any cost. I really loved the strange, otherworldly nature of it, and Jolley’s carefully understated commentary on women’s lives, companionship, desire and the disparity between the landed gentry, common townfolk and the impoverished.

This is my first book for #20booksofsummerI bought it several years ago, but I’m not sure where I bought it. I think it was when Blackwell’s on Charing Cross had a closing down sale, but it could have also been on one of my trips back to Australia. I just know I purchased it because I love Penguin Modern Classics and it’s so rare to see an Australian author in this series.

This is my 11th book for #AWW2018

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Newspaper of Claremont Street’ by Elizabeth Jolley


Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 176 pages; 2008.

In the delightful black comedy Mr Scobie’s Riddle, which I read last year, Elizabeth Jolley had much to say about the lack of respect society has for those we brand “old folk”. In The Newspaper of Claremont Street, first published in 1981, she has a lot to say about the way in which we tend to view the working class.

Despite its title, the story is not about a newspaper but tells the tale of an old cleaning woman who is nicknamed ‘Weekly’ or ‘The Newspaper’. This is because she works in so many different houses that she picks up gossip and is able to pass it on just like a tabloid newspaper.

Though she knew of accidents and weddings, births and deaths and told the news from one house to another, she never spoke of things that really mattered. About these things Weekly held her tongue. […] Weekly knew which wives didn’t want their husbands to come home for lunch; she heard sons snarling at their mothers and ungrateful daughters banging bedroom doors. She heard the insincere voices and laughter in telephone conversations and she wondered how friends could be so treacherous to one another, so watchful over the successes and failures of each other’s children.

Along with her discrete nature, Weekly is a hard worker. Even before she’s left her room in a local boarding house, she’s scrubbed and cleaned and made everything spic and span. She then spends the rest of the day, and often the evening, cleaning the homes of the doctors, lawyers, architects and millionaires who live on Claremont Street.

Her strong work ethic is only matched by her ability to save her pennies. Indeed, Weekly is motivated to keep working — despite the agonising hours, the exhaustion and her aching bones — by the promise of creating an “exquisite cone-shaped mountain made entirely of money, with a silver scree of coins on its steep sides”. She plans on using this money to buy a second-hand car and then, a little later, a property of her own in the country.

Of course, the story wouldn’t work without some narrative tension, and this arrives in the form of a Russian widow, who Weekly “adopts” and memories of an older brother with whom she had a troubled relationship.

Told in simple, elegant prose, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, feels like an easy-to-read fable with a comic touch. But underneath the spareness lies a macabre streak. Weekly might be hard-working and slightly eccentric, but she cannot be taken at face value…

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Mr Scobie’s Riddle’ by Elizabeth Jolley


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 240 pages; 2010.

A novel set in a nursing home doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but in the very capable hands of Australia’s grand dame of letters, Elizabeth Jolley, it’s actually a wonderful black comedy in the tradition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Jolley, who died in 2007, wrote 15 novels. Mr Scobie’s Riddle, her fourth, was published in 1983 and won the Age book of the year that same year. It has recently been reprinted in the lovely Penguin Modern Classics livery I love so much.

Mr Scobie of the title is an 85-year-old retired music teacher, who is admitted to St. Christopher and St. Jude, a rather dubious nursing home presided over by Matron Hyacinth Price. Matron isn’t exactly Nurse Ratched, but she does have her eyes on her patient’s worldly goods and cons them into signing them over. As she battles to keep the home from falling into bankruptcy she has other problems with which to contend: her cook has a raging temper and a penchant for swearing loudly, her night nurse won’t follow instructions, and she struggles to find — and keep — female staff. To complicate matters further, her housekeeper has married her bigamist husband, and now she’s hiding him in the caravan out the back. Oh yes, this is all ripe for farce.

And then there’s the patients. Miss Hailey, who’s just 60 years old, is a nutty writer who’s penned a novel rejected by more than 40 publishers and a poem branded “indecent” by the Town Clerk. Mr Hughes is a retired Welsh farmer who has problems with his bowels. And Mr Privett writes an advertisement selling his body for a “reasonable price”.

Throw in all-night card games, female staff who gossip like schoolgirls, and patients who make bids for escape, and it’s clear that Jolley’s created a rather funny novel. But she treads a very fine line between comedy and pathos, and only a blinkered reader would miss the social commentary that runs throughout this novel.

Ms Jolley has a lot to say about the lack of respect society has for those we brand “old folk”. We see this via Mr Scobie’s abject misery at having to give up his lovely house and land at Rosewood East. Indeed his riddle — that death is the only certainty in life — isn’t as funny as it might sound. This is a man who hankers for the past because he knows there is no future. Not even his nephew, a burglar on the run, and his niece, who has settled for an unsuitable man, give him any cheer. Instead, he’s locked up in a house full of “evil people” with whom he has nothing in common but age. Any wonder he tries to escape?

I went through a whole gamut of emotions as I read Mr Scobie’s Riddle. I laughed, I got angry, I tried not to cry. It’s a truly poignant novel peopled with a cast of characters that feel very human despite their eccentricity. I loved this book, and think it deserves a re-read if only to pick up on all the gentle nuances I missed first time round.

Please note that the Penguin Modern Classics edition is only available in Australia, but if you live in the UK you should be able to pick up older secondhand editions for just a pound or two online. It will be money well spent.