Catherine de Saint Phalle is a newish arrival to Melbourne. Her first local book – On Brunswick Ground (see my review below) – was as grounded in the air and the sense of Melbourne as any book could be. Her second, released this month, takes her back to her Parisian upbringing, in what was a myth-filled, charmed childhood. She’s terrific at evoking the sensations, the emotion, of being in a particular place at a particular time, and it’s a skill that infuses both books. First, the memoir.
Catherine is only a child when she realises there is a situation in her family.
It’s something disreputable, something that makes her relatives disapprove, something that makes it impossible for her to attend the local Catholic school run by French nuns.
Catherine observes, without judgment but with constant fascination, the eccentric world her parents create.
Her mother Marie-Antoinette, known to all as Poum, is an elegant, fragrant creature, welcomed with open arms when she goes into Guerlain on the Champs-Elysees. She spends hours in bed reading The Odyssey, and at other times mysteriously disappears all day.
Catherine’s father, Alexandre, a banker who perhaps stretches the boundaries at times, goes elsewhere each weekend for reasons Catherine is not told.
For her parents, dark tales of the guillotine or unearthed corpses are soothing and enjoyable; it is a fascination – for death, for bloody history, for the great myths – that binds them all.
And there is Sylvia, her English nanny, who disapproves of Catherine’s parents and their difficult relatives, but is a source of comfort and security to Catherine, until one day she is gone.
This memoir of an unusual, myth-infused childhood is full of love and charm, but with reality always acknowledged on the fringes.
It’s beautifully written, with some real magic about it.
De Saint Phalle – born in England, raised in France and now living in Melbourne – last year released On Brunswick Ground, a compelling story of friendship and love in a suburb still dealing with the death of Jill Meagher.
This book was published in November 2016. My review was also published in the Herald Sun Weekend magazine
On Brunswick Ground, by Catherine de Saint Phalle
“Tonight I’m in a bar in Brunswick, on a high stool with a book and a beer …”
The book begins as it continues, deeply grounded in the look, the feel, and the facts of this inner-northern Melbourne suburb.
It begins on the day of the peace march that mourned Jill Meagher, whose death is a constant presence throughout.
Like Jill, the unnamed female narrator is an immigrant to the country and the suburb. She finds work with a local gardener and writes when she can.
The women in her orbit are Stella, who manages her local bar; Stella’s daughter Mary, who has donned a burqua for reasons she won’t disclose; colleague Mitali, who seems surrounded by death; and Bernice, a radio host desperate to have a child.
The men – husbands, lovers, and exes – are largely peripheral, important but not centrestage.
It is a novel of ebb and flow, of big losses and the warmth of new friendships.
This is the first Australian novel from de Saint Phalle, who has multiple publications in her native France. Assured and often poetic, it has the affectionate and closely observed feel of an outsider who has made herself at home.
This book was published in July 2015. My review was also published in the Herald Sun Weekend magazine at that time.