A deeply Queensland novel
MANY Brisbane locals will remember the devastating floods of 1974, and many more will have a vivid memory of the destructive 2011 floods.
Although author Janita Cunnington lived on the outskirts of Brisbane in 1974 and was spared most of the flood anguish, in her newly released book Child of Mine, she has used the flood to begin a sweeping and deeply resonant novel about a maternal tug-of-love between two women and a little girl.
The novel is spell-binding in its scope and depth of story, but it is Janita's prodigious talent for lyrical and descriptive passage, depicting Brisbane from 1974 through 2000, that gives the reader a sense of fascinating place and time. With each page turned we learn more about the moods and swings of the city and the indefinable power of Mother Nature.
"I feel at home writing descriptive pieces," Janita, who at age 72 did not begin writing novels until she was 50.
"I have always written poetry and short pieces," she said. "In fact, they are my natural area for writing. But I am interested in character and with a novel there has to be a strong story that is satisfying for a reader, a recognisable plot. But I do tend to dwell on descriptive things and I have to take the knife to them, to cut."
Janita's discipline in cutting her rhythmical descriptions of Brisbane and its surrounds - the landscape, environment, culture - still leaves the reader with an overwhelming of sense of place. She skilfully weaves sights, sounds, smells and the very epitome of the growing city, into every paragraph of the story.
Those who have lived for some time in Brisbane will be captivated by the way Janita brings the city to life: from the ever-flowing river, to the flora and fauna, to the sudden eruptions of nature. The seasons are so clearly defined, the reader feels the dreadful humidity of summer days and the bone-chill of winter nights. We can see 'valleys refreshed by rain' and 'grass sparkling on banana leaves'. We can see the choko vines and guava and mango trees and feel the cyclonic lows, visualise the river 'placidly reflecting the sky', and hear the 'melody of bird song.'
"It is imbedded in me to write like that," Janita said. "The landscape is hugely important (to a story.)
"The seed of the story came from a friend who was at Milton during the 1974 flood. She told me her house had been flooded and someone had come along in a motor boat and taken her away to (stay with) perfect strangers and it turned out they all had a wonderful time. I thought floods are so transformative, they don't observe boundaries, and all routine goes out the window and all habits have to be ignored. I thought the flood was a way of throwing people together who wouldn't otherwise be together. I wanted to have some contrasting personalities, to interweave stories of two very different people, Maggie and Donna, and look at social isolation in suburbs and how they are overcome in times of crisis."
The novel begins in January 1974 with 35-year-old Maggie, still living with her mother Vera, in a tiny cottage in Hill St, Brisbane. Next door lives Donna Birtles, a feckless 20-something single mother and her daughter Flower.
Early one rain-drenched morning at the height of the flood, Donna and Flower seek shelter with Maggie, and so begins the sweeping story of two women and a small child, that runs over three decades...and always...with Brisbane as a major character throughout the inspiring narrative.
Janita, who lives now on Stradbroke Island after a long career working for a large publishing house editing and writing material for government departments, never thought to turn her hand to writing novels until she reached an age (50) when many people are thinking of winding back their working lives.
"I was poked into it by my mother, a writer, who was ill, near death with Parkinson's and could no longer type but was still writing," Janita said. "She had me hitting the keys for her and I couldn't help but make suggestions to write this and fix that and after awhile she found this irritating and said 'why don't you write your own book?' That's what set me off."
Living on Stradbroke Island seems the ideal secluded place for an author to focus on work, but Janita says it not so laid-back as people think.
"Being a small community, it is always busy," she said. "There are lots of things to be involved in. It is not reclusive. I am involved in all sorts of groups, marginally involved in the Chamber Music Festival, also in the choir...things of that kind. Writing is a pleasure. Sometimes I have to get up at three in the morning when something is in my head. I get obsessed and ignore other things. It is day dreaming to waft into this other world."
Child of Mine is a beautifully written, deeply Queensland novel that will stay with you long after you finish the last page.