Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

When I spotted the front page of the Blue Mountains Gazette last week, I was delighted to see that The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. There is a link to the interview with the author here.

Shortly after I moved to the mountains, I attended a poetry reading by Mark at the newly opened Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. A poet’s eye and love of language is evident throughout this novel, with a sense of place and mood evident from the opening line of the section titled Morning: ‘Dawn cracks like an egg against the fibro walls of the derelict shack.’ Word choice matters to Ava Langdon, who is described below:

Catching sight of herself in a little wedge of mirror perched on an exposed joist, she stops. Who is that hideous creature? What form dost thou take? Her hair like the thatch from a mattress used for nesting material, with lavender bags under her eyes.

Words are chosen carefully to capture the essence of an eccentric personality living in extremely basic conditions in a shack on the outskirts of a mountain village. There is a blurring between the character’s sense of reality and her very active imagination, interwoven with recollections which at times seem unlikely yet not impossible. The vivid evocations of a familiar landscape appealed to me, and I enjoyed pondering what Katoomba would have looked like decades ago. Ava’s interactions, especially at the post office and tea shop, have stayed with me months after reading the book. I am reminded of her whenever I spot the old post office in Katoomba Street:

The red bricks of the post office are darkening now where a downpipe has leaked over the facade. May as well go in, she thinks, and mounts the steps. The door. The dimness. All that detail.

‘Never fear, I have arrived.’

The door swings shut behind her, light, dark, light, dark. Several people at the counter turn to stare, she who is dressed so extraordinarily, the cravat like a golden goiter spilling down her shirt front, the pinstripes, the braces.

The book is loosely based on the life of Australian writer Eve Langley, who is best known for her novel The Pea Pickers. Like Langley, Langdon is an unorthodox writer who wrote a successful novel but didn’t reach the same heights of success again in her career. The hope, anticipation and despair of a writing life is poignantly portrayed:

And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it.

This is one of those books which once read I want to hang on to, to be able to dip back into and savour again. There is an excellent review of it here.

[Photo: Old Katoomba Post Office]

 

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Spinning Yarns: Creative Collaboration

Recently I attended a talk by Marilla North, author of Yarn Spinners. This is the first instalment of a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Australian writer Dymphna Cusack. Creative endeavours between women, and in particular the weaving and creation of stories through collaboration, is illustrated through letters between Cusack and Florence James, as well as correspondence with their contemporaries. The novel written by Cusack and James, Come In Spinner, won a Daily Telegraph manuscript competition. The competition was during the period of the broadsheet circulation wars of the 1940s with a prize of £1,000 on offer.

But the Cusack/James novel was much larger than the newspaper expected: the intention was to print the winning entry in two weekly instalments – an incentive to further drive circulation numbers. Attempts to reduce the novel size, initially submitted at 120,000 words, were not agreed to by the authors, and it ended up being printed through a London publisher when the manuscript was released by the Daily Telegraph three years later. The size of the manuscript wasn’t the only issue: its portrayal of abortion, war-profiteering, prostitution, black marketeering and the role of women during wartime was regarded as extremely controversial at the time.

Cusack and James lived in the Blue Mountains for a spell, moving towards the end of the Second World War to a cottage in Hazelbrook. North gave an overview of the household of two women and a clutch of children with regular visitors from the city and further afield. This included Miles Franklin bringing up bantam chickens for their mountain garden. Cusack had collaborated with Franklin previously to write Pioneers on Parade. The hallway in the house was used to assist with managing the book structure: newspaper articles from the week in which the novel was set were pasted to the butcher’s paper lined along the hallway, the real events forming a backdrop for the  novel.

This was the second project that Cusack and James had worked together on: the first had been a children’s book called Four Winds and a Family. James later recalled that they each contributed chapters, ‘did some editing patchwork’ and realised that their writing matched well enough. The same approach was used for the novel. Cusack, who suffered from health issues (neuralgia, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis) would dictate as James typed, and James would edit and write when Cusack rested. The arrival of a dictaphone for Cusack speeded up the project.

There is a link to the website for Yarn Spinners here, and The Australian Collection: Australia’s Greatest Books by Geoffrey Dutton also provided interesting background on the creative collaboration between Cusack and James. There is an excellent post by Michael Burge providing further insight into the time James and Cusack spent in the mountains here.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project?