I have a confession to make.
It has taken me 5 months to read Gillian Mears’ The Mint Lawn.
In that time Mears has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Foal’s Bread.
And I was still plugging away with The Mint Lawn.
There are several plausible reasons for this. I have a 7 month old baby. I’m not getting a full night sleep. I’ve been busy with Ballarat Writers events….etc. etc.
But the honest reason is because of the book itself. It’s strong. It’s thought provoking. It requires energy and attention. It requires a slow read.
The Mint Lawn follows the life of Clementine Eastern nee Young. It’s not structured chronologically, so the novel begins with Clementine exposing her own affair to her husband and wondering if this is how it happened with her mother and father. From the opening page we understand that this will be a novel where familial bonds, and neuroses are examined. The examination is clinical, truthful as it looks at the legacy left by a dead mother to her three daughters, in relation to marriage, intimacy and sexuality.
The first 75 pages are told in the first person by a 25 year old Clementine, which firmly roots the reader with her, we are excited by the passion of her affair with the creative Thomas, we see the legacy of her childhood with her relationship with her adult sister and above all we see her characterisation of her husband. The first few paragraphs display Hugh crying over the exposed affair, “his crying is a high, unlikely whine…he is crying with his mouth stretched so wide I can see, against my will, years of coffee stains etched on the underside of his front teeth.” A paragraph on he licks her face while kissing her and Clementine informs us that, “later, the smell of Hugh’s dried spit is awful and ordinary Sunlight soap won’t do the job. I have to wash it away with the knob of Coal Tar that sits by the washing machine for extra persistent stains.” Hugh’s characterisation is complete by the bottom of page 2, and we will spend the rest of the 405 pages mentally urging Clementine to pack her bags and go.
Not all the novel is narrated in the first person present tense. We have sections of childhood told in third person, which allows us to examine the domestic scene closer, with our own adult perspective watching the three Young daughters interact with their mother, who we know will die, and we know already some of the character traits that her daughters will develop. This changing perspective and timeframe creates an ability for the reader to analyse the family in a way that wouldn’t be possible if the novel retained one perspective, or was chronological. And this is what requires the energy. The reader is placed almost as another daughter, watching the machinations of domesticity, aware of which traits will be picked up and continued through the daughters, and which will cause problems.
The Mint Lawn was Mears’ first novel and it won the 1990 Vogel award. To consider the complexities of the book with its length (405 pages) it’s hard to believe that this was a first novel. I can see similarities with Christina Stead’s, The Man Who Loves Children, with the suffocating sense of the household replaced by the small town (a character itself) in The Mint Lawn.
I felt that the novel is crafted brilliantly and reads like it has been created by someone who has published several novels before. With this in mind I did some research and discovered that sections of the book are biographical. In an interview in 2011 with Linda Morris for the Sydney Morning Herald, Morris notes that:
Mears, however, well understands the paradox of country life: the barefoot freedom and the claustrophobia of living in a conservative country town. At 18 she caused a scandal, falling in love with her history teacher. When they divorced, she rebelled in the sexual abandonment of carefree Paris.
Mears poured so much of her pre-divorce anger into The Mint Lawn that for a coming 20th-anniversary release, she edited out narrator Clementine’s more ”unsavoury observations”. Her past lovers, male and female, sexual trysts and life’s ”bad weather” are all matters about which she has been searingly honest.
Long ago, however, she reconciled with her former husband and family, with whom she fell out over looted memories. As she grows older, Mears has come to realise how deeply she can cherish ”certain aspects of even a marriage gone rotten”.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/interview-gillian-mears-20111117-1njp5.html#ixzz2AMK7bQnY
The novel begins to make more sense to me when I realise that it has autobiographical elements to it – I’m glad I read it before I knew that, however it’s left me wondering if that’s where its power lies. Is it possible to create a novel that intense without an autobiographical element?
If you are interested in reading more on this there is a great article available online which was originally published by The Australian by Murray Waldren: http://users.tpg.com.au/waldrenm/mears.html
Gillian Mears, The Mint Lawn, Allen and Unwin, first published 1991.
This review forms part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.