In the interest of updating my blog, I’m posting here my review previously published at ANZ LitLovers.
Marion Halligan’s The Hanged Man in the Garden crept up on me slowly and then, unexpectedly threw an enormous punch to the solar plexus.
I had read just one of the stories previously – Belladonna Gardens – and, whilst I remembered it for its x-ray of the bureaucracy and constraints of housing commission lives half-lived, I did not appreciate it as much as I do now that I’ve read it nestled between companion stories with recurring themes and characters.
The characters of Martha and Richard are constants, as are teaching and cooking and the peripheral themes of Canberra (where Halligan now lives), wordplay, gardens, grief and art.
In a 2003 interview with Gillian Dooley (adapted and reprinted in the June 2004 issue of Antipodes), Halligan confessed an Iris Murdoch-like fascination with art: “I notice some writers, like Jolley and Garner, take images from music, but I get mine a lot from art, painting especially.”
Consider, from the title story, one of the many ways a garden might be experienced, if seen from a new angle:
See it with anonymous medieval eyes: the herbs in formal squares in their sun-dialled bed, the carpets of violets, purple starred. Or the eyes of Monet, when the roses will haze into shapes of light; or Matisse, which make a garden of the mind which reassembles objects by its own logic. Or the eyes of Bonnard, which paint their own dazzlement.
Halligan presents a realistic unvarnished Canberra as the major setting throughout this…collection? My question mark comes about because I find it less of a fragmented collection and more a series of vignettes that can easily be cut and pasted. It reminds me – rather bizarrely – of a Quentin Tarantino movie, with its structure of separate incidents that make for a satisfying whole when assembled as one complete work.
In addition to Canberra, the author casts a fresh eye over Australia in its entirety. Upon her first sight of New Zealand, “all fresh and jagged”, it suddenly occurs to Martha that her own country is “soft”, an observation that clashed with my idea of Australia as a sunburnt country with rugged mountain ranges, girt by rough-and-tumble seas.
The shortest of the short stories at just a tad over 3 pages, ‘Use more hooks’ is a delightful seduction told in a sure Australian voice; unfurled with sincere humour and leaving much unsaid. It is award-winning Marion Halligan at her best.
“I’d love a sunburnt nipple” Richard says to Martha (reminding me of Dorothea Mackella’s Sunburnt Country) when he hints she might like to remove her “copious bikini” in the company of so many bare-breasted beach-goers. Later, when Martha orders tellines and separately sucks the “pearly golden pink” flesh from each minute shellfish, the reader can only imagine Richard’s thoughts as he gets drunk waiting for her to finish.
In Martha’s dream that night, her homeland ocean is anything but soft (unlike the Mediterranean she is visiting). Instead, the shallows are frothing with waves that roll about “bearing her up, tossing her down, energetically caressing”. Martha thinks: “A sea to swim in ought to be energetic”.
Unlike a romantic fantasy where the inner monologue of Martha would have eventually collided with Richard’s unvoiced longings, realism prevails. The timing is wrong, as it so often is in life (especially a married one) and Richard will never know that Martha was full of a strange longing he could have fulfilled.
The story that gave me that great big whack in the chest was ‘The Failure of the Bay Tree’. Finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, Jenny remains “cold through the process of the growing child”. She was quite certain her life would not change but she was unprepared for the “overwhelming, terrifying love” that hit her after the birth of her daughter. She becomes a “quivering defenceless surface open to harm” and, contrary to her pre-birth ideals, she is not interested in going back to work or in getting a nanny. She wants to spend her time with her baby.
It is such a shock then, when she discovers the baby’s small fist, cold and stiff. The juxtaposition of Hansel poking a bone out through the bars of the cage (in the Hansel and Gretel story she’d read earlier) with her daughter’s “little finger poking through the bars of the cage of the cot” is heartbreaking. The desperate need of the grieving to find something or someone to blame settles on both: the someone is Sybil the babysitter, who surely must have been a witch; the something is the bay tree given to Jenny by Martha with the Nicholas Culpeper quotation neither witch, nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where a bay tree is. The tree’s failure to protect brings the gift-bearer Martha to terror and tears.
It is worth noting that, in the later brilliant stories featuring the babysitter, Sybil smiles a “witch’s smile” and is “like a charming witch”, reminding us of her place in the overall scheme, perhaps tarnishing her by that earlier association.
Many people would not have read these stories together (many were published separately throughout the eighties) and it seems like only half the experience to have read, say ‘Paternity Suit’ with its glimpse of the kimono without ever experiencing the divine pleasure of ‘Sybil’s Kimono’. I tried to imagine having read of the as yet unmarried and childless Martha and Richard in ‘Blood Relations’ without ever knowing of their later shared experiences. As insightful as ‘A list of last things and lost’ is, with its telescope honed on teenage grief, it is all the better for knowing that young Jimmy’s interest in the tarot – first outed in ‘The Hanged Man in the Garden’ – remains and blossoms.
The Hanged Man in the Garden is a wonderful collection of short-stories but I prefer to read it as an unusually structured (and extremely satisfying) montage of a novel.
Dooley, Gillian. ‘An Interview with Marion Halligan.’ Antipodes, June 2004, 5-7.
Halligan, Marion. The Hanged Man in the Garden, Penguin Books, Ringwood Aust., 1989.