I had heard of author Carmel Bird of course, but I had not read her work until now. Her latest novel Field of Poppies (Transit Lounge 2019) is a literary wonder (and isn’t Transit Lounge producing some great literature?)
Field of Poppies is an almost dreamlike account of the events surrounding the lives of Marsali Swift and her husband William when they embark on a tree-change lifestyle and move into Listowel, an historic mansion in the quiet town of Muckleton in rural Victoria. The plot threaded through the book is compelling: a robbery at Listowel; a local woman gone missing; fatal accidents with cars and kangaroos; and towards the end, a resolution to an ongoing mystery. Against this is the backdrop of the development of Muckleton itself – plans for the prosperity of a new goldmine bring noise, dust and disgruntlement amongst the locals. And going back even further is the local history – the previous gold rush days, and before that, the invasion of the Indigenous land, the loss of culture, the terrible massacres of Aboriginal people. This narrative drives the story but is itself shrouded in the most beautiful literary language, evocative images, imaginative scenarios and poignant character vignettes.
The title refers to Monet’s famous painting. Marsali and William own a replica painted by Marsali’s aunt. It’s a very good copy and returns again and again throughout the story – poppies as symbols of war and loss, of beauty and grief, of sacrifice.
Told in the first person from Marsali’s perspective, but interspersed with William’s own WWW (William’s Wise Words), which are pertinent pieces of information or history captured with a flourish, the story is on one level a gentle depiction of their new life in the country, where they read books (and Marsali joins a bookclub which becomes pivotal to the story), enjoy their extensive garden, play chess and generally become part of the community. Local characters are introduced with one or two fascinating details, so that we feel ourselves drawn into this town and its people as if being immersed in a warm bath. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, sharp and true.
The book explores contemporary world problems such as climate change, dispossession, colonisation and the loss of resources with wit, wisdom, humour and a slightly satirical bent. There are many references to modern (and recent) Australian events and to our literary history, which pop up in surprising ways … just when you think you are in the middle of a sleepy English village (aka Midsummer Murders) you are yanked back into the midst of Australian life and sensibilities, Australian folklore and history, Australian customs and dilemmas. It is ironic and subtle, complex and engaging, timely and dreamlike, examining art, science, history and literature with a roving eye, full of fascinating facts and keen speculation. It’s about Alice in Wonderland and Picnic at Hanging Rock, about Monet and flowers, myths and mining, extinctions and death, chaos and plastic and time, legends and elephants, bones and poems and witches, mental illness and thieves and volcanoes and museums and the critique of art. It’s about disappearance and guilt and beautifully-handcrafted quilts; about vigils and discovered bones and violins.
The novel is a stunning hardback edition adorned with bright red poppies. It asks the question: what could be hidden beneath the poppy fields? A wondrous and breathtaking read with words that sing from the pages and transport the reader to an alternative universe. Embarking on the journey of this novel is like entering a dream-state and simply going with the flow, not knowing how, when or where you will end up or why you are there. Highly literary yet at the same time very accessible.