The Floating Garden by Emma Ashmere
(Spinifex Press $26.95).
Review by Sarah Armstrong
I must have driven over the Sydney Harbour Bridge hundreds of times, and have heard the familiar stories of the anxiously awaited moment when the two arches met, and the drama when a protester on horseback charged in to upstage the cutting of the ribbon at the bridge opening.
The story I’d never heard was about the dispossession and displacement of many hundreds of people whose homes in Milsons Point and The Rocks were razed to build the ‘reaches’ of the bridge. (Which brings to mind the recent NSW government decision to sell off Housing Commission terrace houses in Millers Point, and which gives this novel a particularly contemporary resonance.)
The demolition of Burton Street in Milsons Point – to make way for the bridge – is where The Floating Garden, Emma Ashmere’s very fine debut novel, begins.
The novel brings together the stories of two women: Ellis and Rennie. For years Ellis Gilbey has run a boarding house for women and girls, and she has a secret life as a pseudonymous columnist for a gardening magazine. Rennie Howarth is an upper-class artist who – when she escapes her abusive husband – ends up at Ellis’s soon-to-be demolished, down-at-heel guest house.
Emma Ashmere takes the reader inside rough-and-ready 1920s Sydney with extraordinarily evocative detail. Her description of what it was like to live in the demolition zone of Burton Street is particularly vivid and unsettling:
Grit stung her eyes as she navigated her way around dunes of silt which blew in and settled, blocking pavements, filling drains, heaping across the tram tracks like middens of shell and ash. She nodded to one of the men standing knee-deep in rubble. She didn’t recognise the others. They looked like dusted ants as they scuttled over the remains of houses, pickaxes slung over their shoulders, gnawing away at the dank innards of bathrooms and the surprised mouths of fireplaces.
Ellis and Rennie must find somewhere else to live, and housing in Sydney at that time – as now – was hard to find. Ellis dreams of having a garden of her own, and her reflections on gardening and plants – many of them in her columns – show her love of plants and her wry insight into questions of class and gender.
Ellis and Rennie dare to want more than society offered them at that time, and their dreams to make new lives for themselves symbolise the mood of this period after WWI, when there was hope and the promise of social change for women. Of course, the reader knows that another world war is coming, which adds greater poignancy to Ellis and Rennie’s plans.
As the story unfolds, Ellis relives her escape to the city at 16, when she was drawn into the dubious world of self-styled theosophist, the charismatic Minerva Stranks. Theosophy was popular in Australia in the 1890s (and again in the 1920s) and brought to conservative Australia notions of karma, reincarnation and astral travel. One of the unexpected delights of the book is the exploration of this rich seam in Australian history.
Emma Ashmere’s writing is subtle and lyrical, beautifully crafted and wise. The best books seem so complete, have such integrity, that we can’t imagine them existing in any other form, and we forget that they may have taken many drafts to get to this point.
But in the case of The Floating Garden, I witnessed the final drafts, and the thought and care that went into the version of it you can find in the bookshops today. Emma and I are in a writing group together, so I know that this book comes after years of refining her craft – writing short stories and essays – and years of thinking deeply about the issues that this book raises. She has a PhD focusing on the use of marginalised histories in fiction and her thoughtful inquiry in this area is evident.
• More can be found about The Floating Garden at www.emmaashmere.com.
• Sarah Armstrong is a Mullumbimby writer whose latest novel is His Other House (Pan Macmillan). Sarah and Emma will both be appearing at the 2015 BBWF.