They are looking forward to the pleasures of a pastoral life full of book reading, gardening, poets and painters, film and choir groups and green politics; a rural haven where they “would be removed from, protected from the troubles of the world”.
But as Bird’s epigraph quoting Carrillo Mean suggests – “I was sleepwalking through a field of poppies, somewhere in France” – Marsali and William are dreaming their way through life. The novel is deeply interested in what lies beneath; in the shadow that haunts the sunshine. Over the course of Bird’s novel, Muckleton emerges, “not as a haven from the troubles of the world, but as a swirling little microcosm of nearly everything that was going wrong in the universe.”
As we talk, Bird, who is the author of 11 novels and eight short fiction collections, develops an image (“dare I say metaphor”) of her writing as a form of tapestry work.
“On the surface you have this fascinating and beautiful story and images but behind that, as it were behind the tapestry, in the rough part of the work, there is dark and terrible matter,” she says.
That darkness emerges in the preface of Bird’s novel which sets the scene of a world where the centre has collapsed, inundated by rising sea levels, natural disasters, acid rain, chemical weapons of war, mass migration and falling fertility rates.
The seemingly tranquil Muckleton is not immune, even if some of its residents like to carry on blindfolded. Just below the surface, lurks a violent past – and the present is almost as brutal. Marsali and William are robbed, their neighbour Alice disappears, and a new goldmine causes chaos in the town.
Bird uses satire to critique Marsali and William; their carefree, wealthy lives highlight the dangers of living in a fairytale. They hide from reality, but its sharp edges come closer and closer to bursting their bubble of fantasy. They are lovable and well meaning, but seemingly incapable of doing good. After seven years, Marsali and William leave Muckleton to live ironically – and this is a novel brilliantly full of irony – in the Eureka Tower, on Melbourne’s southbank.
In their story is a lesson, Bird says, that you can run but you can’t hide from the world.
“The more I write, the more I reveal to myself. I hope I am a skillful enough writer to be able to pass that knowledge I have gained as I write onto readers,” she says.
“There is a state of mind that is necessary for powerful writing. I am always wanting my writing to touch people, to move people, to be powerful enough to cause people to think.”
The more I write, the more I reveal to myself.
Bird drew on her own experience of moving a decade ago to Castlemaine, in the Victorian goldfields region, for the novel. She doesn’t describe herself as a tree changer, however, as she moved to live closer to her daughter and grandchildren. In the small town now popular with cityleavers, Bird is heavily involved in community life and is a member of the local orchestra, a volunteer at an animal welfare shop and a participant in community radio.
It’s now been more than 40 years since she published her first collection of short stories in 1976. What has Bird discovered about writing?
“Have fun writing and don’t stop writing and write everyday. Pay attention to the world, pay attention to your own responses to what is going on, look and listen and pay attention to your writing. Read your work out loud. You don’t have to read it [to] everybody, read it aloud for its rhythm, its music, its tone, its meaning and for the joy of reading.”
Carmel Bird’s Field of Poppies is published by Transit Lounge at $29.99.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald