Blue Skies by Helen Hodgman

by Jane Westaway / 04 June, 2011
Prose to admire even as you flinch
Once upon a time, a classic was a book loved by successive generations, its status earned by captivating its readers. Nowadays, “classic” is a marketing label slapped on a “product” by its publisher. Which means it can become that oxymoronic entity, the “forgotten classic”.

When the immigrant author of Blue Skies returned from Tasmania to London in 1971, she took with her the raw – very raw – material that forms her debut novel’s sinister backdrop. It was first published by Duckworth in 1976, then again in 1989 by Virago. I don’t mean to suggest its republication by Text isn’t worthwhile, only that I wish it wasn’t being sold as an “Australian classic” when really it’s an oddity written 40 years ago by someone who lived in the Antipodes for only 13 years.

Blue Skies takes no prisoners. If you haven’t an appetite for being dropped headfirst, without explanation, into a dismal milieu in the company of a small cast of unlovable characters, you may not survive its 153 doomy pages. I’m not giving away much to say that from the first you know it will end badly.

In fact, the novel’s milieu is a potentially pleasant Tasmanian seaside suburb, where the dads go out to work and the mums and kids spend afternoons on the beach. The protagonist’s husband plays his part, as does her emotionally neglected baby. But she herself is unnervingly detached from them both, as well as from her mother-in-law who babysits (Tuesday and Thursday), her lawn-obsessed neighbour, her two ­unappetising lovers (one Tuesday, the other Thursday) and indeed herself.

It’s the total lack of sympathy for her characters that marks this out as a “young” novel; its vision is bleakly amoral. The prose, though, is cut-throat, and you admire it even as you flinch.

Hodgman’s non-Australian origins feed into her main character’s view of the world in which she’s trapped. The sky, always blue, is harsh, unforgiving; the light unrelenting. Dawns are melodramatic, best avoided. And the beach at the end of the road is haunted by the ghosts of thousands of murdered Aborigines, the sand steeped in their blood.

This could easily have become a 70s feminist diatribe, but Hodgman’s narrator is far too wayward to make a worthy mouthpiece. It is, though, a howl of protest at the life young mothers were expected to lead back then, and one that 40 years on might still ring bells for some.

BLUE SKIES, by Helen Hodgman (Text, $35).

Jane Westaway is co-editor of
New Zealand Books.

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