Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson


6a00d83451bcff69e2017ee908e15b970dAnother book chosen in honor of Australian Literature Month! As I mentioned in a previous post, Kimbofo of Reading Matters has designated this month for Australian literature. For each post about an Australian book sent to her blog, she is making a donation to the Indigenous Literary Foundation. So, besides being its own reward, reading Australian authors has another virtue.

Yesterday my continuing recovery from this wretched cold was considerably improved by reading the short book Tirra Lirra by the River. Nora, now in her late 70s tells us her story as she returns to the place where she grew up, a small town in Queensland, after years in Sydney and London. In these few pages, a whole life unfolds with references of what is to come so that we are prepared for the events when they are revealed to us.

Nora escapes her small town (and unlovely mother and sister) to Sydney with a lawyer who shows up in her town and lives for a few delicious years in a room in one of the beautiful houses on Potts Point. The author says the characters are imaginary and only the houses on the point are taken from life: Bomera, Tarana, Crecy, Agincourt. Those years with like-minded artists come to an end when she and Colin move in with his mother in the suburb where she is eventually imprisoned by Colin and his mother, the Depression and her mental state.

Her next escape lands her in London where she meets three wonderful friends to live with and finds employment that suits her. They are a happy group who live in harmony. After she returns to Queensland, she has a realization:

I am beginning to see our little coterie at number six through other eyes. We would often say to each other, describing incidents that had happened ‘outside’, ‘Oh, he thought me quite mad.’ It was our happy assumption that everyone in the outside world thought us quite mad. But now I am finding that when one is really outside, and alone, it is less of a burden (and much more private) to be thought quite ordinary.

In Queensland she allows herself to remember her life and let it unfold in her mind. She wonders if her account of Colin to everyone at number six was accurate; perhaps she just provided a substitute for the amusement of everyone.  She regrets the realization that they wasted each other. And she notes, “As a rule, when we can’t find even one good quality in a person, we are prejudiced, and by that rule I must admit my prejudice.”

She becomes extremely sick as soon as she arrives, and is cared for by neighbors and a doctor whose mother she remembers as a girl. Their stories and their memories of her also unfold in a most appealing way. As the book ends, the sensual pleasures of the warmth and smells and the joys of her sister Grace’s old garden enfold us. And I took pleasure in the sunshine and breeze coming in the window, opened for the first time this spring, and the sounds of noisy birds and a neighbor’s indistinct voice.

The book can be purchased from sellers through Amazon and is available at the UVA library.

Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River, Penguin Books, 1984, 141 pages.



  • I’m sorry you didn’t like Jasper Jones – it had its failings in terms of plot but I did like the voice, particularly the boys’ repartee – but I’m very glad you liked this. Jessica Anderson is one of our great writers over here I think.
    BTW Are you at UVA? My daughter did an exchange year there in 2007/08 and loved it. We visited her and had a little wander around the campus.

  • With that recommendation I will try another Jessica Anderson. As I think on it, it was a near perfect book.
    About Jasper Jones: I mentioned writing the post during the manhunt for the marathon bomber. Having a teenage boy’s voice in my head made me think of him as a scared teenager. Now he’s a killer, but am glad to have had human complexity in my mind.
    I’m excited to hear you visited UVa while your daughter was here. My husband works in the library and both daughters graduated from UVa, so yes, we’re connected.

  • This does seem a perfect read for while one is recovering from a cold, making one all the more sympathetic to Nora’s becoming ill herself so soon after she returns home. I found her voice unexpectedly compelling, and now I definitely want to read more of Anderson’s fiction.


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