The Aunts’ House by Elizabeth Stead

I am very interested in the work of Elizabeth Stead, niece of Christina Stead who wrote the Australian classic The Man Who Loved Children.  I relished Elizabeth’s 2007 novel, The Gospel of Gods and Crocodiles, set on an island that reminded me of somewhere in Papua New Guinea, although the place was unidentified.

Elizabeth Stead has a wicked, deftly controlled, tone and style, particularly in the carving of her inimitable characters, which is unleashed in her new novel The Aunts’ House (University of Queensland Press).

I wonder if there is a nod to Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story here; the tile may suggest so. The setup of the characters and place, and some of the writing style, also has similarities.

The Aunts’ House is set in 1942 between a boarding house on Sydney’s bushy north shore and the aunts’ house above the beach. Ten, turning eleven-year-old Angel Martin lives between these places after her mother dies in poverty. Angel is a survivor, although she is undoubtedly damaged by her experiences, which include the wandering hands of older men. To earn her keep she has to work at the mean boarding house run by slatternly Missus Potts. She wears lipstick on her tram rides to the beach to look “experienced” and to help the drivers like her. She may recognise her life in the work of Charles Dickens, which she loves.

Her friends are all adults: in particular, mathematician Barnaby Grange and exotic Winifred Varnham who she calls the Duchess of Nullabri, from the boarding house. Winifred is visiting her sister at the nearby sanitarium. Together the trio are “Duchess Colour, Miss Music and Mister Numbers”. The broad cast of adults seem to discern some of Angel’s trouble. Some try to help but even most of those ultimately cast a blind eye and are culpable.

Music is Angel’s companion. She feels music as colours: she “loved the swirl of colours inside her. Thick and oily or gently splashed and tinted, depending of course on the particular musical composition, and she often wondered if an orchestra could play from a score of colours undulating across the page, flowing like streams of water and oil”.

She loves both the green gully where she is protected “beneath the tree canopies and serenity, sweet as a kiss, from the gentle flow of the creek” near the boarding house and the Mariana, her name for the vast parallel nation of the ocean. On a summer day Mariana is hard to leave “with her deep sea all glassy as far as the horizon, and white seahorses, all thrashing manes and tails and bored with a sea smooth as a rink, raged at the cliff’s bottom and climbed, one at a time, all seven of them, onto the rocks”. Angel plays on the rocks and names them, the tides and the swells. Nature is her sanctuary although she tries to find a safe place with people. She longs for family.

Angel rarely attends school and escapes to the Bay on Sundays, gradually inveigling her way inside the aunts’ house. She helps Aunt Elsa who lives downstairs and hears Aunt Clara’s ballet music from upstairs. Like a number of the females in The Aunts’ House, these women lack agency; they exist precariously at the whim of their deceased father’s lover who owns the house.

This is a beautifully written yet disturbing novel of madness and love. It is darkly captivating, brilliantly layered and full of secrets. Elizabeth Stead is a maestro.

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