Books

Carmel Bird
Field of Poppies

The fiction of Carmel Bird, like that of Angela Carter, is known for its intermingling of fairytale and historical realism. It is also, like the early work of Peter Carey, known for destabilising the patriotic fantasies and brutal realities of Australian identity. In Field of Poppies, Bird again uses a hybrid storytelling mode to unsettle our complacency. At one point, the novel reflects on different pronunciations of Australia – “Osstraylier, Istrallia, Istrellia, Istrollia, Ahsrillya, Straya, Stray” – before settling on “The Republic of Oz”. Bird’s new novel presents us as a nation of fantasists, lost in dreams of real estate and the good life, even as the climate crisis is ending the world as we know it.

The narrator of Field of Poppies is Marsali Swift, a semi-retired interior designer and decorator, who moves with her husband into a beautiful mansion – “the house of my dreams” – in the fashionable Victorian goldfields town of Muckleton, a place “buzzing with poets and painters and potters, alert with green politics, sweet with organic vegetables, musical groups and dancers, and free-range eggs”. Swift comes from a literary family (her brother’s name is Gulliver), and she loves reading. She joins a book group and dreams of writing an autobiography. Indeed, this novel is presented as Swift’s memoir.

The narrative is fragmentary, often resembling a diary. In it, Swift reports on dreams, reflects on the paintings and objets d’art that furnish her beautiful home, and relates global disasters that occasionally unsettle her. Swift’s memoir, however, is also a crime story. First, her mansion is broken into through the conservatory, “reproducing a common scene from trashy television dramas” and recalling the game Cluedo. Following this, a local woman named Alice goes missing. Swift and her book group grapple with Alice’s disappearance, with references to Picnic at Hanging Rock, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Doctor Blake Mysteries.

In Field of Poppies, stories overlap and multiply until they threaten to obscure reality. Poppies, for example, are storied through Monet’s Poppy Field Near Argenteuil, through the history of Ypres and, most prominently, in the book’s title. Bird seems to present stories, like poppies, as agents of narcosis. While this may seem like self-sabotage, Field of Poppies is in fact a risky and exciting wake-up call.

Maria Takolander

Transit Lounge, 264pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2019 as "Carmel Bird, Field of Poppies ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Maria Takolander