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Books: Flowerings the Newspaper of Claremont Street

4 minute read
Paul Gray

Those who have not yet discovered the work of Elizabeth Jolley might well start with this novel. For one thing, it is brief, deceptively simple, eccentric and entirely in keeping with the comic, macabre nature of her best fiction. And it is nice to know that there is more where this comes from. The Newspaper of Claremont Street is the eighth Jolley book, including six other novels and a collection of stories, to be released in the U.S. in the past three years. Prior to 1984, she was one of Australia’s best-kept literary secrets. Now her international reputation has edged past the cultish toward the catapult of runaway acclaim.

Jolley’s success owes something to publishers willing to hawk her books outside Australia. But her own distinctive talent deserves most of the credit. After leaving her native England with her librarian husband and three children and settling in Australia in 1959, she took up a variety of jobs, including nursing, door-to-door sales, occasional stints of domestic service and eventually writing. Along the way, she seems to have developed a sense of what loneliness and isolation can do, even to the most simple, hardworking folk. Such people, earnest and a little unhinged, began popping up in her fiction: a spinster trying to manage a remote farm, a young female helper and a bizarre secret concealed on the premises (The Well); an old man dreaming up plans to disrupt the nursing home into which he has been dumped (Mr. Scobie’s Riddle).

Margarite Morris is one of this breed. Tall and skinny, of indeterminate antiquity, she is known as Weekly, or the Newspaper of Claremont Street, because she cleans the houses and spreads the gossip in a prosperous old neighborhood of an unnamed Australian city. Weekly is a de facto tyrant. When a stray cat periodically invades her sparse room to give birth, Weekly knows that she can give away the kittens as presents to the children of her employers (“Oh Weekly you shouldn’t have. Really you shouldn’t”). Any household unwise enough to turn down such a gift risks full disclosure of embarrassing secrets. The cleaning woman wears hand-me-down clothes that always meet a standard of faded respectability: “For, watching each other, no one in Claremont Street would have given her a garment which was worse than something someone else had given her.” Her presence seems ubiquitous: “There was hardly a dinner party in Claremont Street where Weekly was not in the kitchen crashing cutlery and dishes in the sink”; yet the people she works for know nothing at all about her.

Weekly’s secret is her desire to take her savings, hoarded over many years of sweeping and scrubbing, and buy some land where she can spend the rest of her days in peace. Her problem is the arrival of Nastasya Torben, an imperious Russian emigre and former employer, newly widowed, who has unaccountably moved into the confines of Weekly’s room and responsibility. After years of cultivating solitude and independence, the Newspaper of Claremont Street must confront disquieting impulses toward generosity. “Pore old Narsty,” Weekly thinks about her disconsolate and unwanted roommate, and wonders how she can set herself free.

This tale boasts a conclusion that is bizarre but not unexpected, given the oddities that occur all along the way. Jolley’s careful look at Weekly’s life, both stunted and capable of strange flowerings, inspires absolute belief: this woman, given her background, would do everything exactly just so. There is not a false note in The Newspaper of Claremont Street, nor are there many touches that could be found in the work of any other writer.

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