Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
I first read this novel many years ago for a class in my first year of university. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it but then having barely left Brisbane at this point in my life, it’s no wonder. So, how would I respond to it this time around?
Nora Porteous, a witty, ambitious woman from Brisbane, returns to her childhood home at age seventy. Her life has taken her from a failed marriage in Sydney to freedom in London; she forged a modest career as a seamstress and lived with two dear friends through the happiest years of her adult life. A book about the sweetness of escape, and the mix of pain and acceptance that comes with returning home.
First Impressions: A ‘coming home’ story that seamlessly moves back and forward in time without me even noticing. Clever, compact writing.
Highlights: The story has three settings – Brisbane, Sydney and London and Anderson is so precise with her observations of each location. Brisbane and Sydney could each perhaps be any city or town in Australia, Brisbane for its narrow view of the world and the feeling that with a sensible marriage mapping out your life and so forth ‘isn’t that enough?‘, and Sydney for its endless cut copy suburbs. The weight of it all on Nora’s shoulders! Suffocating and restrictive, how can she breathe? I can’t comment on Sydney’s artsy scene but certainly it has the reputation of being a bit faster than Brisbane in that regard.
But London. I’m from Brisbane and have lived in London for over eight years now and despite the decades passing Anderson is precise with her description of London. Three things really stood out for me. First, Nora moved house a few times in the early years – just a few streets over – and no longer kept in touch with friends from her old address. So true! What is it about Londoners that makes this so true? Second, although I have met Aussies in every remote part of the UK I have travelled to, there is a strong feeling amongst Aussie expats that if you’re going to move across the world, there’s no way you’re not going to live in London. Somethings never change! Third, that rhetoric everyone who has been in London over 2 years has, that they’re definitely going home, sooner rather than later… Have I been transported backwards or forwards in a time capsule perhaps?
If I was an editor: There’s nothing I would change about the story but I would like more extra features. There’s an essay from Anna Funder at the end but perhaps others could contribute essays? Reading group questions? Historical and geographical essays? I am sure my uni lecturer spoke at length about Nora being named after Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House so maybe an essay on this. Interestingly, Nora is also the name of the main character of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, also published around the same time – surely there’s an academic who can write more about this! And the similarities with Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker…
(If we are thinking about A Doll’s House, then the poverty Anderson’s Nora is kept in during her stay with her mother in law is heart wrenching, may I add).
Overall: A timeless Australian classic that needs a proper re-release. My heart couldn’t avoid shadowing Nora’s emotions.