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Rodney's Ramblings: Elemental

from the greatest shame have come these things, the greatest joys...

John Paul Newbury reviews Amanda Curtin's novel, ElementaL

From shame to joy, the charismatic Meggie Tulloch writes to a distant granddaughter, exposing her whole life in its subjective ignominy, and yet, in spite of it all, from it emanates the greatest gift, a family, someone worth writing for.

Amanda Curtin, published Western Australian author, creates a deeply personal and tantalising tale of several generations of women in an Australian family with Scottish heritage. She sets the colourful scenes with such a deft hand that the salty sea air streams off each page.

Meggie Tulloch late in years hungers to diarise her life for the sake of a twenty-one year old granddaughter who leaves the nest for overseas. Meggie left home when she was much younger and wishes to relate the family heritage and the well-kept secrets. Meggie writes 1972, Fremantle Western Australia, turn of the previous century, a foreign place, on the other side of the world, the other side of her life. The story moves seamlessly between the past and the present.

Meggie begins in northeast Scotland, a fishing village, ancient roots, custom driven, where her fiery child self meets the world head on with her flaming red hair. Her dazzling mane curses the shipping fleets and she learns quickly where to tread and how often. Kitta, her confidant and older sister, plays the role model that stays with Meggie beyond their final separation.

Elemental has four sections named after each of the natural elements of water, air, earth and fire. ‘Water’, the one from which all humans derive, and need to thrive, begins with Meggie living as full a life as she can as the youngest in a traditional fishing family; father and older brothers and a maternal grandfather go out each sailable morning early to make a meagre living on the family boat the Lily Maud.

Meggie stays behind with the other female members and undertakes the womanly chores. From an early age Meggie sees the life as one to escape from whenever she can. Her dealing with an anachronistic and hostile grandfather stokes the fire that drives her ultimate escape. Eventually preteen Meggie even takes on the arduous task, from her sickly mother, of travelling about the countryside selling their wares through the worst possible weather. Though her mother becomes bed-ridden Meggie refuses to become the eventual replacement. She fights to her last breath to not live her mother’s life. The more she cares for her mother the more she sees the possibility of another way.

Curtin provides a glossary of terms for those keen to learn the unique tongue of the region. The use of these terms adds to the richness of her storytelling.

Young Meggie follows in her sister’s footsteps, heading for the fishing in the Shetland Isles where the women gut and process herring. This trade was widespread in those days when young girls would be apprenticed to herring companies. The girls stayed in basic accommodation and dealt with much hardship and deprivation. What saved them was the kinship they developed. The job brutalised their bodies. Some survived; many did not, regardless the scars stayed.

Whilst working in the Shetlands Meggie meets Magnus Tulloch and instantly falls for his boyish charm. They marry young and after a short time migrate to the burgeoning colony of Western Australia. Poverty follows them as do some of her herring friends and together they attempt to forge lives in the alien landscape. Scandals and wars come, as family members die before their time and others are born. Through it all Meggie survives the worst conditions, a fighter, a leader, a nurse and a close friend.

The final section, ‘Fire’, takes on a different slant in the story and deals mostly with Meggie’s descendants. Her story turns one last time and her granddaughter finally draws the threads together. So beautiful is this tale that it ends too soon. The stunning picture on the front cover dances across the mind and Meggie’s words follow sweetly in a Scottish lilt.

This generational tale contains the necessary ingredients: history, relationships, shame, humanity and love.

Author: Amanda Curtin
Publisher: UWA Publishing
Published: May 2013
Price: AU$29.99
Format: Paperback 448 pages
Category: Fiction

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