Author Susan Duncan opens up about the changes of time
SUSAN Duncan's much-anticipated third book in her memoir series hit the bookshops at the beginning of October to much acclaim.
The House on the Hill follows Salvation Creek and The House at Salvation Creek and is not only a lyrically written narrative of her time building a dream sustainable house on a hilltop-slice of paradise in the mid-north coast of NSW, but is a blisteringly honest story of her life: the bad, the good, the very worst of times.
Throughout the 357 pages of The House on the Hill is the underlying story of Susan's contentious relationship with her mother, now 95, as well as her frustration at the maddening business of aging.
"I think everyone is in denial about ageing," Susan, 65, said. "Denial is useless... all that about the 60 being the new 40...useless. Medical advances have made a huge difference but your body goes along at its own pace no matter what you do. You have to accept each new stage, work out how it works for you."
Creaking knee joints and fading stamina are just two bothersome issues Susan discusses in her book, but she doesn't steer clear of the mostly-taboo subject of sex and the older person, and refers to the 'apothecary of unguents' required to boost a diminishing libido.
"I had no idea what to expect (about ageing)," she said. "No-one tells the truth. My mother lies about the capabilities of what she can do. It is time we said ageing is part of the process and if you get to do it you are lucky. There is no shame about it. Be honest about it. It is a way of accepting your new frailties as well. By talking about it, I was hoping it would make women feel safer. Our bodies change, our needs change."
But The House on the Hill is so much more than confronting old age or dealing with a difficult relationship between mother and daughter.
It is a glorious celebration of the Australian bush, the rugged country and all its charms and foibles, the determination to build a contemporary yet fully sustainable house on a beautiful piece of hilly countryside in the Manning Valley near Wingham in the mid-north coast in NSW, a second home/farm to enjoy with her much-loved husband Bob.
Susan met Bob at Pittwater when she escaped Sydney and her high-powered career as editor of two of Australia's most prestigious magazines (The Australian Women's Weekly and New Idea.) After the death of her husband and brother within three days of each other, followed by a cancer scare, a mastectomy and devastating chemo, Susan found peace and Bob at Pittwater.
"I didn't think it (new love at age over 50) would ever happen to me," she said.
"You don't see it coming. I think what holds you back is fear. The fear of undressing in front of somebody or the fear of making the wrong choice. I was so lucky with Bob."
Their developing love and marriage is detailed in Susan's previous memoirs, Salvation Creek and The House at Salvation Creek and now The House on the Hill continues the story of their enduring love and the pressures it withstood during the Wingham farm/house building project.
Susan gives evocative and wonderfully descriptive details of the period during the building: how they came to discover the beauty of the Manning Valley, then living first in a tent on their 90 hectares, and then a shed, fighting freezing winter temperatures and icy-cold feet at night on a camp stretcher, cooking on a fire in a drum, dealing with aching knees each time she bent to use her camp loo, and most of all, dealing with the omnipotent feelings of self-doubt.
Susan and Bob made regular trips back to their home at Pittwater during the building project to reconnect with their life there and to take Susan's mother out to her favourite picnic or restaurants lunches.
But on each return to the Manning Valley they found the countryside more seductive, the lifestyle more rewarding and more suitable for their age and life-stage.
"It crept up on us, this beautiful place," Susan, who grew up in the country, said.
"You forget the environment you grew up in but it doesn't leave you. You are in something that feels familiar and comfortable.
"Instead of water and beaches (at Pittwater) this is almost like being enfolded warmly by the natural countryside. It was the shock of Pittwater that was wonderful, the challenge of the water and boats, whereas this (house) is the right thing at the right age. I was ready to be enveloped rather than challenged."
Enveloped in the natural countryside does not mean discomfort or sacrifice now that the gleaming architect-designed eco house (named Benbulla) is completed. Electricity comes in such abundance through solar panels Susan and Bob have to use it to excess to keep the batteries functioning.
Susan and Bob now spend their time between Pittwater and their new home on the farm. "We will move my mother to a high-care nursing home in (nearby) Taree. Now, instead of Pittwater and my mother, it is Benbulla and my mother. I can't take her out any more. I sit with her, not for that long, but I do sit with her."
Susan said she first wrote House on the Hill to follow the journey of buying the land and then building the house, but when she read the first draft she found it was too sanitised.
"It was about building a sustainable house, simple and straightforward," she said. "I read through the first draft and felt I was in denial, it was too Pollyanna, not the way real life is, not honest.
"I felt I was being a coward about facing a lot of things. But because I love words I couldn't let it go. I felt I was being drawn towards facing a lot of things."
That 'facing a lot of things' meant Susan finally confronted her mother about a terrible secret she had kept for more than 50 years. It also meant revealing raw and painful truths about her mother's vanity, her massive ego and self-absorption, and the conflict it has caused Susan throughout all of her life.
"I asked my mother's permission to write (about her)," Susan said. "I started this book three years ago and told her there would be a lot of black stuff coming up.
"She gave me permission, but then she took it way. I was six months into the project and thought if I don't have her permission, I can't write it. Then she gave back the permission so I pulled it (the manuscript) out and began writing again. Then she took it away again. Then gave it back once more.
"'This is her power,' Bob told me. When she had given me permission yet again I never mentioned the book to her again. I feel as though I haven't betrayed anything."