Sincerely, Ethel Malley by Stephen Orr

‘So that’s what I’ve decided to do: be honest.’

Who is Ethel Malley? She was Ern Malley’s sister, the one who sent the poems she discovered after Ern’s death to Max Harris, co-editor of the Angry Penguins. And in this novel, Ethel strides out of the shadows into an area bordered by history and imagination. The Ern Malley affair is one of Australia’s most infamous literary hoaxes, but Mr Orr’s Ethel is having none of that.

The novel itself opens in 1981 with Ethel’s death, takes us back to 1943 and 1944 and into the lives of Max Harris, his girlfriend (later wife) Von. Once he reads the poems Ethel sends him, Max is convinced that Ern is an undiscovered genius. He dedicates an entire issue of Angry Penguins to Ern’s poems. Ethel travels from Sydney to Adelaide, moves in with Max and helps him. Sort of helps him when she’s not hindering him or trying to take over completely. Ethel says she just wants Ern’s poems published but Max isn’t quite sure. Then two poets come forward, claiming that they wrote the poems.

The more Max, or his friend Mary Martin, dig into the Malley story the more uncertain it becomes. Stories change, facts become fluid, Ethel becomes more demanding. Max is charged with publishing Ern’s ‘pornographic’ poems, and the action moves to the court room.

What is truth? What constitutes freedom of speech? Where does fact end, and fiction begin? What constitutes art, and what is the role of censorship?

Reading this novel reminds me that it is not that long ago that many books were banned in Australia, and many Australians were suspicious of any whiff of modernity. Ethel Malley, championing Ern’s work, tries to control what is shared about Ern and fails. But does she fail because she—and he—are fictional, or because the audience is not worthy? And the poems? Does it matter how they were written and who wrote them? Max Harris considered them extraordinary.

Ethel becomes part of Max Harris’s world for a while, acquiring an understanding of modernism and determined to stand up for Ern and his work.

This is such a clever novel: so many possibilities to explore; so many aspects to consider. I especially liked the washed-up soccer ball with the Spanish word ’farsa’ (meaning farce) on it. A very neat touch.  Ethel Malley may (or may not) be real but in this novel Mr Orr brings the mid-1940s in Australia to life.

 ‘All of these lives had become threadbare, and put in the bin. Maybe that’s how it is with people. We just live and die?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith