At the start of Eleven Letters to You, Helen Elliott states: “I am not the centre of this book, but the hinge holding it together.” This book memorialises 11 endearing, emotional and often epiphanous letters to former neighbours and teachers, each of whom left an indelible imprint on her.
Elliott, a literary critic and journalist, re-examines the forgotten lives of these formative figures, who helped to shape her childhood and adolescence. The backdrop to these epistolary stories is bushland Boronia, east of Melbourne, between 1950 and 1969, with each letter restaging a pivotal moment.
There are letters to neighbours, such as Mrs Grenness, who lends her a copy of Little Women at eight years old, a book she finds like “incarceration in Sunday school”. There’s Mrs Hannacker, an apparently unmarried neighbour who still uses the honorific “Mrs”, who inspires awe and envy as she projects self-assurance in her “walk like a soldier” and men’s slacks. One teacher, Mrs Maddocks, radiates a “boldness” that excites young Elliott – a trait, however, that her father dislikes in women.
In a roaming and discursive style – sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness – the mosaic of Elliott’s early memories is pieced together afresh. Incidental acts take on new rupturing meaning, such as one brief exchange with a former boss, Mr Cohen, who tells her at one workplace: “A girl like you doesn’t belong here.” Domestic spaces – in particular, gardens – become private windows into each person’s inner world. Even planting certain flowers, such as Mrs Hannacker’s flowering quinces, represents a quiet rejection of patriarchal scripts in 1950s Melbourne.
Eleven Letters to You is as preoccupied with the melancholia that comes from looking back as it is with celebrating its pleasure. Reflecting on neighbour Mrs Parrant’s beguiling femininity confirms to Elliott how her mother “wanted to be rescued from herself” and her father was likely homosexual. Wry asides punctuate the sobriety of these observations: “No one in Boronia was reading Betty Friedan”.
With crackling prose and a vividness that illuminates even the remotest of memories, this memoir pays tribute to those forgotten figures who light the runway into adulthood. Passing bit players – not parents, partners or close friends – are given a kind of corrective star billing here, as each sees verve, ambition and a future in Elliott that others didn’t. As Eleven Letters to You looks back on one life, it acknowledges how these people revealed rare and vulnerable parts of their own lives too.
Text Publishing, 272pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Eleven Letters to You: A Memoir".
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