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.
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.