A review of Personal Effects by Carmel Macdonald Grahame

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Personal Effects
By Carmel Macdonald Grahame
The University of Western Australia Publishing
ISBN: 9781742585345, Paperback, 250 pages, AUD$24.99

Middle-aged couple Lilith and Ross have just moved back to Calgary, Canada, as Ross once again has to take a job on an offshore oil rig. The pair lived in Calgary once before – many years ago with their two daughters, Nan and Kate, and coming back brings back many of the memories of that time. That might well be the simple plot of Personal Effects by Carmel Macdonald Grahame, but saying that is like saying that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is about reminiscing over Madeleines. Personal Effects is the story of a couple on the move –repeatedly changing country in search of work, exiled and migratory, homeless yet rooted through their sense of family; of consistency in their relationship. Beyond that the story explores what we lose and what we gain, throughout any ordinary life. It explores the shifting and cyclical perceptions of time passing, and it examines, in a deep, poetic way, the way we make meaning out of our lives. Throughout Lilith’s adjustments to life in Calgary, she drifts forward and back in time to other moves and other experiences that weave through her narrative. The result is poetic, surreal and natural at the same time. What Grahame creates is a kind of eternalism, where all of Lilith’s experiences coalesce into the present moment – equally real and equally present.

Structurally, the narrative swaps between Lilith and Ross’ first person confessional style, though Lilith has the lion’s share of the narrative and most of Ross’ passages take Lilith as the subject. Though there is plenty of self-reflection, much of Lilith’s narrative is about Ross. The voices of the two main characters meld, referencing their subject through the longing that comes from the other’s absence. In addition to the present tense there are also Lilith’s journal fragments which are scattered through the book. These passages are particularly poetic in a novel full of poetry, presenting moments from the past in present tense.

When Ross and I look back on all this we’ll see we’ve lived in small increments, this one made up of islands streaming into the distance, our lives reeling away too, as if before our very eyes. We are becoming a concoction of places been to, time spent, experience had, effort made – all past tense and words that make me aware of our far selves heading towards finality…(197)

The book is rooted in the many places the couple (or with the children, family) have lived: Dubai, Cervantes and Rottnest Island in Western Australia. The novel moves between those spaces, taking us to the heart of what it means, now, at this moment in time, to have lived in those spaces in the past. Memory becomes an open door to a new space, new perceptions, or, as Grahame puts it, an eruption:

I don’t want this to be just another place I pass through with all the old memories, dissatisfactions, my husk-self intact, want to let go, be able to imagine life so far as something elemental, part of a dust cloud being tossed across white space by a wind leaving behind countless fragments of possibility in its wake. (89)

Though there is a straight line progression through time—we are always aware of the narrative present, Lilith and Ross’ life can also be measured in a series of pulses. These are key notes in any life – the moments of pain or pleasure that mark the couple. There are moments of great joy with their daughters, on Rottnest Island in Western Canada. There is the pain associated with the loss of their son, Lilith’s brother and sister’s death, the death of Lilith’s mother. Lilith’s narrative is full of loss, but also full of love. Her love for Ross is a consistent thread through the book, binding the characters through the inevitable pain of life and building in memory fragments through the novel. Lilith and Ross change, but the changes, pain and transitions bind them. Lilith becomes an artist, creating pique assiette mosaics from bits of broken china, salvaged initially from a breakdown after the loss of their child – the anger and the healing coming together: beauty arising from the breakage. In some ways, the book itself is that kind of mosaic, created out of the fragments of memory and put together in a new, beautiful way. At times Lilith rails against her dependence on Ross – the way they have to compromise and move to support his career, the personal and artistic sacrifices she has to make, and the ongoing loneliness and fear while Ross is away on his oil rigs. Despite the difficulties, Lilith never gives way to self-pity. Instead she explores and unpacks her own life even as she unpacks the boxes that come along with her – playing with the many identities she has had, and the nature of how experiences and change adds up to a life:

Life is turning out to be a constant fission, identities peeling away. (87)

Personal Effects is an exquisite novel. The writing is rich, deep and moving, taking the scattered fragments of Lilith and Ross’ life and turning them into a mosaic that reflects our own lives. Ultimately, this book works like an extended poem. There is plenty that the reader will recognise here, about the layers we lose of ourselves and those we love, and how we come to develop new layers. This is a novel about life, and the meaning we make of it through our interconnections, and will resonate with the reader long after its story is finished.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com