Review: Danielle Woodon Helen Hodgman

The Harsh Light of Day: Blue Skies by Helen Hodgman

When I was seventeen, my grandfather bought me a plane ticket to London. For him, London not only had the strategic advantage of being far from the boyfriend I had at the time: it was also the most obvious destination for the cultural enlivenment of a girl born and raised in Hobart. I arrived there in early winter and, though I loved the city for its theatres and museums and crazy-angled street-corner buildings, I was topographically adrift. The Thames was not so much a river as a concreted canal, and I missed my mountain. Worse, I felt myself pressed down upon by the heavy lid of sky that lightened later, darkened earlier and showed its blueness less often than even the very worst of the winter skies I’d lived beneath in Tasmania. I experienced several weeks of unbroken greyness before the clouds peeled away to reveal that, higher up, the sky was blue after all. Over-excited with relief, I took its photograph.

Back in Hobart, I had my photographs developed. I expected to have a blue rectangle, a slice of pure cobalt to commemorate the day the sky cleared in London. But my picture turned out to be pale blue at best, and unmistakably shot through with greyish tendrils of cloud. Perhaps my eyes played tricks on me, or my cheap pocket camera was never up to the task of capturing that sky, that day. Or perhaps blue skies are not as uncomplicated as they first seem.

Helen Hodgman made the same journey in reverse. She was thirteen-year-old Helen Willes when she emigrated with her parents from Essex to Tasmania in 1958, as part of the ‘Bring out a Briton’ campaign launched by the Australian government. It was like stepping from black and white to colour. She remembers the sensory onslaught of the light, the vivid palette of nature and a perception that she had arrived in a world of greater social freedoms.

Social freedoms can be deceptive. Helen left Hobart High at fifteen and had a series of jobs, from a ‘disastrous’ stint at the Commonwealth Bank to waitressing, to working at a bookshop, where she finally started her education and met her future husband, Roger Hodgman. Their daughter, Meredith, was born in 1965. In 1969, Helen and a partner, Paul Schnieder, opened the Salamanca Place Gallery, the establishment that began the transformation of Hobart’s signature row of historic waterfront warehouses into a hub for the arts.

In those years, in this place, Helen Hodgman was an observer twice removed. Not only was she from elsewhere: she was a writer, though yet to write a word, and she turned this twin X-ray vision on her surroundings. What she saw was a landscape of beauty and mystery, and the cracking veneer of an insecure, insular society desperately trying to make nice in the aftermath of the violent dispossession wrought by colonisation.

It took Helen’s return to England, when she moved to London in 1971, for these technicolour impressions to find their way onto the page. Blue Skies took shape during six intense months in 1975. The title and its understated irony came early, born of her experience that a blue sky can oppress just as certainly as can a grey one.

It is common for Tasmanian literature to be softlit with the kinds of autumnal colours that are so flattering to sandstone convict ruins, a contrast to the red dust and white gums of much mainland Australian writing. Helen turns up the intensity, creating a glare under which she examines human desperation and ugliness. It is usual, in writing about Tasmania, for dawns and dusks to proliferate. Instead, Helen gives us broad daylight—precisely, a never-ending three o’clock. The unnamed heroine is, in this painfully deft portrait, suffering the crushing boredom and depression that can shadow the early days of motherhood. She is a curiously passive protagonist who is, as Helen describes it, ‘very good at slipping sideways’. Fleeing the demands of her new baby, and the emptiness of her home and marriage, this young mother ricochets between the embraces of various and equally revolting lovers, flouting the social conventions of ‘Tiny Town’, all the while pursued by angry ghosts in the landscape.

The blue sky is a complex motif. Sometimes it is a perfect canvas in danger of being despoiled by the ‘passionate reds and purples and boiling yellow-green jealousies’ contained, just, within the abject human body. Other times it is a blazing firmament scorching the ‘vulnerable, white bodies’ that do not belong beneath it. In one startling pre-dawn scene the narrator even envisages the land as if from the sky itself, overseeing a tableau of the slaughter of Aborigines and seals, the fall of ‘crimson drops on the golden sand’.

Blue Skies has many of the hallmarks of a first and youthful novel—confident and free-flowing imagery and dialogue, elements that appear to be semi-autobiographical, a risky ending. Like its narrator, the novel is sometimes abrasive and quirky, wilful and obsessive. But it had something that was immediately seen by editors at the venerable London publishing house Duckworth, that was also seen by contemporary critics and that will be seen by readers of this new edition: Blue Skies shines with raw, hard-edged talent. This book is— now, as it was when it first hit the shelves, in 1976—quite out of the ordinary.

English perceptions of the novel from the time of its release are both amusing and smug. The original Duckworth edition’s blurb described Tasmania as a place ‘where the sky is always blue and nothing ever happens’, and I cannot help but smile at this, for I know how often it rains. London newspaper reviewers— nearly all positive—were almost too pleased to refer to Helen as a ‘chronicler of awful Australia’, to liken her command of the Australian idiom to that of Barry Humphries and the ‘vulgarity’ of one of her characters to that of Edna Everage.

The Duckworth edition of Blue Skies splashed the word ‘incest’ on the jacket, without consultation with the author, and even though the text contains only a hint of an over-involved brother and sister. When Virago republished Blue Skies, in 1989—packaging it with Helen’s second novel, Jack and Jill—the new blurb continued to promise incest, along with the murder and suicide that the book does contain. Helen puts this down to the English being rather too interested in the notion of Tasmania as Australia’s incest capital.

In the Hobart press, Blue Skies was warmly reviewed by the local literary matriarch Joan Woodberry, to whom the novel is dedicated, but other mentions of the book in the local daily, the Mercury, betray a dependable deference to the cultural standards of the Mother Country. ‘A novel about Tasmania has recently been highly praised by London’s hard to please literary critics,’ boasted the newspaper in 1977. Then, in 1979, when Helen won England’s prestigious Somerset Maugham Award for Jack and Jill, a Mercury headline made so bold as to claim her as a ‘Tasmanian author’, though she had left the state in 1971 and would never live here again.

Home, for Helen Hodgman, has been Essex, Hobart, London, Vancouver and Sydney. Her concise debut, the product of two of those places, is a blisteringly original contribution to Australian writing. Its bright colours undulled, Blue Skies remains a confronting snapshot of the social aridity of suburbia, the experience of marriage and motherhood, and life on the ‘heart-shaped island’ south of the mainland.