The Floating Garden is set in two time periods: around the turn of the 20th century when a young girl goes to Sydney to escape her drunken father and 20 years later as her neighborhood is being destroyed by the building of the harbor bridge. Ellis' father began beating every creature in sight after the death of her mother and had turned to her. Though she grew up in the isolated countryside her mother taught her much, using plants as a tool:
Lily of the Valley, Ellis. Where do we find lilies in the Bible? Luke speaks of them, Mother. And what does Luke say? 'Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not.' What other plants do we find in the Bible? Acacia, Almond, Algum, Alie. And what of the Aloe's many uses? Apply the juice for soothing burns. Or take it as a syrup for the stomach.
Three stories are told concurrently: the story of Ellis' misadventures as a girl in Sydney, the effect of the demise of her neighborhood on those who lived there in the 1920s, and the story of an English woman who turned up at Ellis' vacant rooming house shortly before it is to be torn down. Rennie had married a rich Australian man she didn't know well in order to escape the sadness of England after the war. The city of Sydney is a character in each of these stories; different facets of the city are revealed in each narrative. Google maps was useful to map all the locations and get a feel for them. Ellis' neighborhood was Milson's Point, the north end of the harbor bridge near Luna Park.
There are many elements of these stories that made this reading such a rich experience. We first meet Ellis about to lose her work as a landlady of a rooming house, as well as her beloved friends of the doomed neighborhood. Though the yard of her house was a messy wreck, typical of that neighborhood, she was secretly the author of a well-known gardening column. She wrote "The Green-eyed Gardener;" her editors attributed its success to two things:
the fact it was written under the nom de plume of Scribbly Gum, and Ellis' depiction of a man she'd encountered long ago, a mean spirited green-thumb, Mr. Moses. Everybody knew someone like him. 'Putting on a Mr. Moses' had even entered the local vocabulary. It was what people said if you crowed about the superior scent of your roses, or rued the progress of other people's runner beans, or were seen ringbarking somebody's almond tree because it blocked your sun, or caught dumping your weeds, snails and pruning over a fence.
We learn about Ellis' neighbors both from her interactions with them and later from the observations of Rennie, the rich artistic escapee. There's Girl, the prostitute immediately recognizable by her hat with pink feathers; Ellis had gotten drunk with her one night and told some secrets that Girl blabbed around the neighborhood the next day. Rennie encountered her on the ferry and Girl's kindness to her saved her life. Rennie's observation of the world outside her window at Ellis' house prompts her to pick up her sketchbook. "It was as if Rennie had stepped inside one of the Dutch masters' paintings where moody damsels with pouting lips did ordinary things, filling milk jugs or pouring tea." One of Ellis' neighbors has a quote from a poem for every occasion.'Good heavens,' Rennie thought, the poor misshapen little fellow was quoting one of the Lake poets, though exactly whom she couldn't quite recall."
Ellis' reaction to the city just as she arrived is one example of the beautiful writing:
The buildings grew taller and arched over them. The air was thick with the stink of drains, smoke and dust. There was no room here for trees or sky. She glimpsed the harbour and her heart lifted as she felt the cool breath of salt, and saw the silky grey water criss-crossed by boats, the forests of masts of the tall ships moored at the docks. The cart slowed to a stop.
She had planned to seek help from the Benevolent Society as instructed by her late mother, but in its absence, she fell into the clutches of the wicked Miss Stranks who made use of her talent of a photographic memory in the public readings. Another virtual prisoner there was the beautiful Kitty whose end haunted Ellis ever afterward. Miss Stranks was a rival to the theosophists. This narrative includes those Victorian other-worldly groups, the spiritualists: in this case Ellis was to present herself as a visitor from Atlantis.
It's impressive that these disparate narratives come together so naturally to enrich each other. What a wonderful book: thanks to ANZ Litlovers for writing about it. I want to add a reference to Whispering Gums' insightful post about it too.
Emma Ashmere, The Floating Garden, Spinifex Press, 2015, 256 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.