TIRRA LIRRA BY THE RIVER book cover   Tirra Lirra by the River
Jessica Anderson

Cover illustration by Neil Stuart and Mark Strathy

Dustjacket synopsis:
"For Nora Porteous, life is a series of escapes. To escape her tightly knit small-town family, she marries, only to find herself confined again, this time in a stifling Sydney suburb with a selfish, sanctimonious husband. With a courage born of desperation and sustained by a spirited sense of humor, Nora travels to London, and it is there that she becomes the woman she wants to be. Or does she?"

"Finely homed structurally and tightly textured, it's a wry, romantic story that should make Anderson's American reputation and create a demand for her other work." - The Washington Post
"There may be a better novel than Tirra Lirra by the River this year, but I doubt it." - Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Subtle, rich, and seductive, this beautifully written novels casts a spell of delight upon the reader." Library Journal

First Paragraph:

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.

The front stairs are just as I visualized them on the plane, fourteen planks spanning air, like a broad ladder propped against the verandah. The man who drove me here from the railway station sorts his keys as he bustles to take precendence of me. He is about sixty, tall and ponderous, with aturtle head. He introduced himself ont herailway platform, but already I have forgottenhis name. I am exhausted, holding myself by will-power above a black area of total collapse. My nephew in Sydney warned me about the train journey. 'Six hundred miles, Aunt Nora,' he said. But I wouldn't listen; I said I simply adored trains. 'You won't adore that one,' said Peter. But I said of course I should; I adored all trains.

The truth is, I was terrified to fly again.

From the Penguin paperback edition, 1987.

Some Personal Comments

Tirra Lirra by the River - Reviewed by Perry Middlemiss, 4th January, 1993

This novel was the winner of the Miles Franklin Award (Australia's premier literature prize) in 1978 and I guess I picked it up because of that fact. I was a bit put off by the title at first. Sounds like the book is going to be rather on the twee side if you ask me. I seem to remember starting the book a couple of years ago but didn't finish it. I don't know why. Probably had no appreciation for well-written novels back then I guess. I place this novel firmly in the "old codger looks back on their life" genre - typified by such books as Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Illywacker by Peter Carey. Both of which are Booker winners I now realise. With this novel making a trifecta of literary award winners maybe there's something in this genre. Or maybe it's just that the awards' judges are also old codgers who like this type of thing.

My copy of the book seems to have gone west at the moment so you've have to forgive me as I try to remember its details. The main character of the book relates the story from her old family home in a large town in the country of New South Wales. She grew up in a fairly non-descript sort of way with a mother who was a bit of a tyrant. Which is probably why she married the first bloke who came along. She moves to Sydney and starts to expand her intellectual and social boundaries, much to her husband's displeasure. I'm not exactly sure of the time here but it is probably pre-war. To cut a long story short, she starts to earn some money working for a dressmaker, her husband takes ultimate exception to this and gives her the boot - he also blames her for their childless marriage to add a bit more insult. With her allowance from the marriage she skips off to Britain, gets caught up in an ship-board affair with a married man, gets pregnant, and arrives in London with little or no idea what she is going to do with herself. She aborts the child and spends the next thirty years or so working in the London theatre as a dressmaker having a great time.

Looking at the plot blandly like that makes me wonder how I ever got through the book after all. Luckily enough there is no feeling of melodrama or maudlin self-introspection - just an interesting story about an interesting character. Then again I might just have liked the book because she spent most of her time in London living in Maida Vale near Little Venice, a few blocks away from the flat my wife and I rented for over two years. Doesn't matter really. In any event I went up in the estimation of one of Robyn's friends when I mentioned this book at a dinner party over Christmas a few years back. She thought no-one had ever heard of it. And we both agreed that it was a "lost" treasure.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998-2001 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

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Last modified: December 24, 2001.