Tirra Lirra by the River is a 1978 novel which won The Miles Franklin Award. Nora Porteous is our narrator and, as the book begins, she’s arriving at the house that was her childhood home.
I arrive at the house wearing a suit – greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these sub-tropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them behind in the car, but I don’t know that yet.
There, at the end of the first paragraph, is our first hint that Nora is telling a story and therefore, might not be an entirely reliable narrator.
She’s returned to Brisbane following the death of her sister, Grace but is only in the house one night before she finds herself ill with pneumonia and bedridden. She’s cared for by Jack and Betty Cust, neighbours, and Doctor Rainbow. All these people are connected to Nora’s past in some way and throughout the first half of the novel she begins, with some nudging, to recall their links to her.
She also recalls other elements from her childhood:
I shut my eyes, and when, after a few minutes, I open them again, I find myself looking through the glass on to a miniature landscape of mountains and valleys with a tiny castle, weird and ruined, set on one slope.
That is just what I was looking for. But it is not richly green, as it used to be in the queer drenched golden light after the January rains, when those distortions in the cheap thick glass gave me my first intimation of a country as beautiful as those in my childhood books. I would kneel on a chair by this window, and after finding the required angle of vision, such as I found now by accident, I would keep very still, afraid to move lest I lose it. I was deeply engrossed by those miniature landscapes, green, wet, romantic, with silver serpentine rivulets, and flashing lakes, and castles moulded out of any old stick or stone. I believe they enchanted me. Kneeling on that chair, I was scarcely present at all. My other landscape had absorbed me. And later, when I was mad about poetry, and I read The Idylls of the King and The Lady of Shallot, and so on and so forth, I already had my Camelot.
Which brings us to the title of the novel. ‘Tirra Lirra’ is what Lancelot sings to himself in Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shallot’ as he rides past the river and the tower the Lady of Shallot is imprisoned in. Her attraction to him is what leads her to leave the tower, thus triggering the curse set upon her, ending in her death. It relates to Nora Porteous as she feels trapped at various stages in her life – in her youth; by her marriage; by an affair; by her ailing youth. Each time she thinks she’s escaped the thing that’s keeping her caged, something else replaces it.
Part of this entrapment is because she’s a woman and her rights – legal and moral – are often lacking or eroded by male decisions, behaviour and opinions. The stages that Nora goes through would be interesting if that was the sum constituency of the novel. However, Anderson makes it clear that Tirra Lirra by the River is also about storytelling and how people view their lives:
Liza used to say that she saw her past life as a string of roughly-graded beads, and so did Hilda have a linear conception of hers, thinking of it as a track with detours. But for some years now, I have likened mine to a globe suspended in my head, and ever since the shocking realization that waste is irretrievable, I have been careful not to let this globe spin to expose the nether side on which my marriage has left its multitude of images. This globe is as small as my forehead, yet so huge that its surface is inscribed with thousands, no, millions of images. It is miraculously suspended and will spin in response either to a deliberate turn or an accidental flick. The deliberate turns are meant to keep it in a soothing half-spin with certain chosen parts to the light, but I am not an utter coward, and I don’t mind inspecting some of the dark patches now and again. Only I like to manipulate the globe myself. I don’t like those accidental flicks. In fact, there are some that I positively dread, and if I see one of these coming, I rush to forestall it, forcing the globe to steadiness so that once more it faces the right way.
This quotation explains the structure of the novel – images catch the light as people and places are mentioned, or as Nora chooses to highlight them for us. This means that the novel moves back and forth between Nora’s present, her childhood in the house she’s returned to, and other key events in her life. It also means, of course, that she’s editing for us and it’s left to the reader to decide the ‘truth’ of what Nora relates to us.
Tirra Lirra by the River may be almost forty years old but many of its concerns are as relevant today as they were in 1978. Nora’s globe exposes the reader to stories that remind us that decades after the Lady of Shallot left her tower and Nora left Brisbane, women are still trapped by laws and societal rules. It is a compelling narrative with moments of real horror. Highly recommended.
Thanks to Melville House for the review copy.