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Jessica Anderson: Tirra Lirra by the River

Nora Porteous née Roche is now in her seventies and, after a long life in Sydney and London, has returned home to her childhood house in Queensland. The novel consists of how she must adapt to her new situation of being back home and no longer the fully independent woman she once was, as well as her reminiscences of her life. Her father died young and she was never particularly close to her mother or, indeed, her older sister, Grace. She feels trapped by her family life and by her environment. She marries young but it is not a particularly happy marriage. She is keen on being a relatively equal partner, both in and out of bed, while her husband wants her to be subordinate, both in and out of bed. More than once he tells her that he does not want his wife to be a whore and expects her to lie there and not move during sex. Nor does he expect her or even allow her to have a job of any sort. She is a talented dress designer and wants to work at it but has to do it surreptitiously. Even during the Depression when money is tight and he says he might be about to lose his job (though she is never sure if he is telling the truth), she is not allowed to work or to have any money. She is about to leave him when he announces that he has another woman and wants a divorce.

With the money she gets from the divorce, she goes off to London. On the boat she has a brief affair with a married man, gets pregnant and then has to have a messy abortion in London. She never has sex again. She gets a job in the dressmaking business and shares a flat with two other women. Her time in London is happy enough but she misses Sydney and when they have to give up the flat, she returns home. Coupled with these reminiscences, we see her as she is now. She is looked after by a couple of neighbors, whom she vaguely remembers as children and who gradually fill in the blanks of her forgotten past for her.

What makes this relatively short book so interesting is that Anderson is fully in command of the story and has a tight structure by which Nora’s attempts to find her place in the world are revealed. Nora’s struggle to be someone, to be herself rather than what others try to make her be have continued through her life, while she has watched others fall by the wayside. And, at the end, despite the failures and stumblings, Nora remains very much her own woman.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Macmillan