Field of Poppies is the first novel I’ve read by Australian author Carmel Bird. The author’s bio says she has written 11 novels and eight short story collections, been short-listed three times for the Miles Franklin Award and won the Patrick White Literary Award. I can’t think why I haven’t read anything by her before.
The story is narrated by Marsali Swift, who with her husband William moved to the fictional town of Muckleton in central Victoria from Melbourne in what is popularly known in Australia as a ‘tree-change’. In Muckleton, Marsali and William lived in a grand old house called Listowel and immersed themselves into the community, even though the locals know that anyone from the city are just blow-ins. To be a local people’s parents, grandparents and preferably their great-grandparents had to have lived in the area too.
First of all, Muckleton. If that place isn’t real, then it should be if only for the name alone. I kept saying Muckleton over and over again as I was reading, just because I like how the name sounds. I have a mental image of Muckleton and think it must be similar to the central Victorian town of Castlemaine, which has an enormously grand Post Office that was built on the promise of gold, gold and more gold being found in the district. Also, there is also a small town called Muckleford just a few kilometres from Castlemaine. Close enough?
Sigh. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. This isn’t surprising because Marsali’s narration was a succession of anecdotes which hopped from one to another. Some of Marsali’s stories were about Muckleton residents, places or events, while others were based on discussions of novels from Marsali’s book group who read Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland after a local Muckleton woman named Alice Dooley disappeared. Marsali’s version of events were occasionally interrupted by William’s Wise Words, where he chimed in to add to the story with interesting and detailed facts.
A great many of the anecdotes were related to Claude Monet’s painting The Poppy Field, or a copy of the painting which was made by Marsali’s Aunt Clarissa, who was a talented copyist artist.
One night, when Marsali and William had driven to Melbourne to attend an opera (La Traviata) at the Arts Centre, Listowel was robbed. The thieves were two local men whose vehicle hit a kangaroo while they were leaving town with the loot. One of the men died in the accident but the other was charged with theft then went back to his Real Estate business, without any loss of business by the locals. Marsali and William’s antiques and collectables were returned to them along with the copy of The Poppy Field, but how they felt about Muckleton changed.
The disappearance of Alice didn’t help, but when a Chinese gold mine started up, bringing jobs and noise and dust to the town and to Listowel in particular, since the road to the mine went past their back door, Marsali and William upped stumps and moved back to a high-rise apartment in Melbourne (in the Eureka Tower, mind you. I’ve been up to the skydeck to look at the view over Melbourne and it is sensational. The Eureka Tower was named for Australia’s own Eureka Stockade, where gold miners took on the English authorities who were taxing them out of existence).
I loved the rambling, inter-connected story-telling style of Field of Poppies. I loved Muckleton and its community. I loved the idealism of the tree-changers. I loved the opinions of the book club’s members of the books they read. I loved the coincidences and the randomness of the anecdotes. I’ll definitely be reading more of Carmel Bird’s stories in future.