Book review: A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay

Monday, March 27, 2017 Permalink

I suspect I requested this book because it’s set in Brisbane… my former hometown and a place I know pretty well. The story of an elderly woman leaving her home of 60 years and the family moving in after her departure is not my usual reading fare but I found it enchanting and surprisingly addictive. 

Book review: A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley HayA Hundred Small Lessons
by Ashley Hay
Published by Allen & Unwin AU
on April 1st 2017
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction
ISBN: 9781760293208
Pages: 384

When Elsie Gormley falls and is forced to leave her Brisbane home of 62 years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, with their new life - new house, new city, new baby. Lucy and her husband Ben struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents and both seek to smooth the rough edges of their present with memories of their past as they try to discover who their future selves might be.

But the house has a secret life as well, and the rooms seem to share Elsie's memories and moments with Lucy.

In her nearby nursing home, Elsie revisits the span of her life - the moments she can't bear to let go; the haunts to which she might return. Her memories of wifehood, motherhood, love and death are intertwined with her old house, and as the boundary between present and past becomes more porous for her, this seems to manifest in the lives now held inside that house as well.

Through one hot, wet Brisbane summer, seven lives - and two different slices of time - wind along with the flow of the river, as two families chart the ways in which we come, sudden and oblivious, into each other's stories, and the unexpected ripples that flow out from those chance encounters.

Sometimes (well, often) I feel ill-equipped to describe a book I’ve read and loved. I don’t think I can do it justice or I’ll undersell it in some way. This – as it happens – is one such occasion, so I’ll let a blurb from the publishers do it for me…

A Hundred Small Lessons is about the many small decisions – the invisible moments – that come to make a life. These richly intertwined lives spin a warm and intricate story of how to feel – deeply and profoundly – what it is to be human; how to touch the shared experience of being mother or daughter; father or son. It’s a story of love, and of life.

This book is beautifully written by Ashley Hay. I’ve not read her previous work – including the much-praised The Railwayman’s Wife – and now am tempted. Her writing is quite exquisite and – whilst reading – I had to stop myself noting phrases to potentially quote in this review.

The story itself is almost achingly understated and slow. And not in a bad way. It’s a far cry from the action-packed thrillers I usually read and, while not-a-lot happens, a lot happens. If that makes sense.

Although the book opens as Elsie ‘leaves’ her home, it’s as much about Elsie and her life (as a wife and mother) as it is about Lucy and Ben’s. We learn about Elsie’s marriage to Clem and the years they spent together before she lost him. And then there’s a 37 years she spent in the family home after his death as she continues to talk to him, confide in him and rely on his support. Despite his departure from their lives; and it’s not weird or unusual, but natural. Understandable.

And now that she’s in a retirement village / nursing home, Elsie talks about her return home though knows logically it won’t happen. And that’s okay. It’s almost like a game she plays with herself and her 70-ish year old twins. As if convincing herself that the life she knew still exists. Although she does know better.

Hay effortlessly ferries readers across the decades, from Elsie’s meeting with Clem during the war and through motherhood and grandmotherhood and back again. We flit, along with Elsie’s mind and memories back and forth. And then there are the threads connecting the past to the present. And Elsie to Lucy.

Lucy’s struggling with motherhood and life in a new town. She’s accustomed to moving about, and tends to think of it as ‘arriving’ rather than ‘moving’. But now she feels very isolated and like an interloper in her own house, which she feels still belongs to Elsie. Her marriage is a happy one and she’s a great mother but there’s a sense of displacement.

Hay does a great job of capturing the essence of Brisbane, particularly the inner city suburban streets. Her descriptions of the parks and surrounds meant I could almost visualise the jacaranda trees in bloom. And she kinda bookends elements of the novel with major floods in Brisbane, in 1974 and then again in 2011.

This book’s not just about lives ending and beginning. But life in general. And this is a cliche I realise, but it’s a wonderfully heart-warming read. Poignant and surprisingly satisfying.

A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay will be published in Australia on 1 April 2017 by Allen & Unwin.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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