Field of Poppies by Carmel Bird


What a beautiful book Transit Lounge has created for Carmel Bird’s latest novel. Rich dark red wallpaper on the end papers, and a gold-framed image of Monet’s Field of Poppies in the centre of each page, close ups of red poppies on the cover. One instantly wants to buy it for a gift for those who would appreciate it. And isn’t that everybody? Well maybe not.

The narrator, Marsali Swift and her husband William are a well-heeled middle-class sixtyish couple, who have chosen to live their retirement in a formerly affluent goldmining town in country Victoria. Their house, Listowel, is an historic mansion, they have staff and two children, Daisy, who lives in Paris, and Tarquin who lives in the U S. Comfortable, happy, successful, Marsali is a retired interior designer, and William an easy-going doctor almost ready to retire.  What could possibly go wrong for them? Why do they, after eight years in Muckleton, decide to leave their beloved house and town and return to the city?

One of the epigraphs gives a clue,

It seems no flowering summer lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of unimaginable darkness. Peter Fleming, ‘Has the new dark age begun yet?’

The story is related by Marsali, in the form of a journal, with headings, and with occasional factual diversions from William, headed WWW. This allows Marsali, to dream and chat and speculate, and digress, especially about her passion for art and flowers and colour.

On our first night at Listowel, we stood out in front of the house and gazed up into the big sky. We couldn’t even count the stars that time, and they twinkled and glittered and seemed to be very close and very far away all at once. You see, I’m doing that serpent thing he said I do, going round in circles. p 5

But in her chatty digressive way, Marsali tells many stories abut her ancestors, about the original indigenous inhabitants of Muckleton and about the settlement that grew up there after the discovery of gold. In fact, Muckelton is begun and ended by gold.

As Marsali tells it, their falling out of love for Muckleton began after a night at the opera.

Our little bit of paradise split open when thieves broke in to the conservatory attached to the back of the house…Smash goes the glass panel on the door, a big menacing gloved hand curls through the space, and with one fat finger flicks up the lock. p 26

This plays out not quite as you would expect, and proves to be the beginning of a series of disappearances, and discoveries of past crimes. Muckleton is revealed to have a very dark past.

Marsali and William meditate on missing children, music, literature, from Henry James to Alice in Wonderland. They create a vigil in honour of a woman who has disappeared, but about the real threat to the town they can do nothing. And ultimately that is why they leave.

A delicious rambling read of a book, but one that never glosses over the plight of our dying world. Even Marsali and William, with their most fortunate lives, cannot escape forces both from the past and the future. And while their new living place in the heart of the city seems to suggest some kind of cocooning themselves way above the forces  of modern life, they are still very vulnerable in the event of  disaster.

You may not like Carmel Bird’s  whimsical style or the rather arch voice of her narrator, but under that sweetness and light she has a dark message to convey; there is no escape from the coming catastrophe, even for the most fortunate.


10 thoughts on “Field of Poppies by Carmel Bird

  1. This sounds like a very thoughtful novel, one that alights on several themes with the lightest of touches. Not an author I have ever come across before….Have you been following her work for a while?

  2. She is Australian, recipient of a Patrick White award, a kind of lifetime achievement recognition. She has written eleven novels, many books of short stories, and several writing guides. She writes well about art, music, landscape, although she has a Gothic twist that may not appeal to every reader. If you wanted to try a book, this could be one to start with.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book Gert. The book that I have been giving away this year is My Family and Other Animals by Gearld Durrell. It too has a lovely, hard cover and the edges are gilded. He’s an excellent writer.

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