‘Stories never really ‘end’ but the telling has to stop somewhere.’
Marsali Swift and her husband William had moved from Melbourne to the (fictional) town of Muckleton in the Victorian goldfields. Marsali, a retired interior designer and William, a semi-retired doctor thought that life in the country would be less pressured, more enjoyable, safer.
‘In our version of life in the countryside there would be a film group and fresh air and green politics and peace and quiet and singing in a choir and reading with a book group, naturally.’
Yet, as we learn at the beginning of the novel, Marsali and William have returned to the safety of the city: swapping the beauty of the historic mansion of Listowel in Muckleton for the remote security of the Eureka Tower.
Marsali tells us how two events unsettle her and William and lead to their retreat. It’s less a narrative than a conversation, Marsali sharing her concerns about the world while telling the reader about the robbery at Listowel while when she and William were away, and then the disappearance of Alice Dooley. While most of the Swift’s possessions are recovered, their comfort is not. Being robbed in the country, where everyone knows everyone, feels like more of a violation than it would in the anonymity of the city. And when Alice Dooley disappears, a divorcée living alone, clearly Muckleton is not the rural idyll the Swifts thought it would be.
Even the book club Marsali belongs to changes: they focus now on stories about women who have vanished. Other events crowd Marsali’s mind: Alice’s ex-husband begins renovations on the house Alice lived in, and plans emerge for a new goldmine.
Was the world ever a nice place? Marsali recognises that she and William are privileged, that they have alternatives available to them that others do not. They have been able to make choices. But even so, the unsafe world intrudes.
‘Anyway, life’s a sort of jigsaw and the pieces of the picture have their own ways of drifting to the surface of the mind, of fitting together, sometimes in surprising ways.’
I read this book once, and then revisited it. Marsali’s world becomes real to me: I recognise some aspects, and wish others were different. The three parts of the novel move in enlarging circles of impact: from the relatively small (The Robbery), to the larger (The Disappearance), to the largest (The Mine). Who will want to live in Muckleton? And why? Ms Bird is a wonderful writer. A story about an individual becomes a reflection on the world.