Every now and then, a book is born from long labour, considered crafting, and the requisite time for it to ripen into something superb.
I’ve been lucky enough to witness not one, but two such books in short succession.
Friday 1 May is the official birth day of Emma Ashmere‘s debut novel The Floating Garden, a gorgeous piece of writing that I’ve seen evolve and coalesce over the last few years since Emma joined my writing group. The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press, a small, passionate publishing house in Melbourne that has been producing innovative, controversial and optimistic books for more than two decades.
The story unrolls in the 1920s as the Sydney Harbour Bridge is being built. I’d never thought about living in a suburb that was being slowly and noisily torn down to make way for the bridge, but that’s the scenario in which we meet the main character, Ellis Gilbey, struggling landlady of Milsons Point and secret gardening writer. Her gardening column isn’t her only secret – her past is full of them and through her we meet the charismatic theosophist Miss Minerva Stranks, and the delicate Kitty Tate – not to mention Rennie Howarth, highly strung artist and dissatisfied wife. Unforgettable characters in a fascinating era.
It’s an exquisite read. Emma is a master of superb prose and she’s been honing this book for some time. It shows. Early reviews have compared it to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Oh, and the gorgeous cover features the painting ‘The Bridge’ (1930), by South Australian artist Dorrit Black.
His Other House by Sarah Armstrong is the other book I’ve watched grow and evolve over a long period into a beautifully crafted work of fiction. Sarah is also in my writing group and her first novel Salt Rain was shortlisted for awards including the Miles Franklin when it came out in 2005. His Other House, set in northern NSW, takes us on a journey of truth and lies, as the main character Quinn embarks on an affair and then must make a choice that reverberates shockingly though the lives of his wife Marianna and mistress Rachel.
I love this process of following a character through a moral conundrum. It’s a gripping read as we see disaster coming for Quinn. Even though I’d read the book in early drafts, when I sat down with the final product, I again found myself trying to work out what I’d do in Quinn’s position, racing through the story to find out what he chooses. Marianna and Rachel are also gripping characters and none of them acts predictably.
I’m reminded with both books of the great value in not rushing. They are complete, polished, superbly crafted and fully realised. I’m in awe of Sarah and Emma – and feel very privileged to share a writing group with these two fine authors.