I picked up my copy of Cherry Ripe at the closing-down sale of City Basement Books, when they left Elizabeth Street. I got it for only $1. For this reason, it’s sat on my shelf for quite a while, and I’ve felt no pressing need to read it quickly in order to get my money’s worth. And having been written quite some years ago (1985), I didn’t feel the need to read the book or else fall behind in my reading. So now, about a year after I bought the book, I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.
The story is of three generations of women in Tasmania, mixing the real and fantastical in a way that makes the line blur – pure Carmel Bird.
I’m a big fan of Bird’s short fiction, “Automatic Teller” being one of my all-time favourite short story collections by a single author. I’ve only read one of her novels (she’s written about ten), Red Shoes. I loved Red Shoes for its amazingly rich narrative, a really intricate combination of wonderful story-telling and some really great research into myths and traditions.
While I’ve read it later, Cherry Ripe was a precursor to Red Shoes, and it certainly has that same feeling of being incredibly well-researched, and a strange mash-up of realism and magic. Like the hugely entertaining glossary in Red Shoes, Cherry Ripe is also a kind of vehicle for magical stories which sit outside the main story itself, and these stories are delivered through Aunt Agnes. She hands stories down to subsequent generations, telling of girls flying off cliffs from grief, and girls who drink vinegar until their blood runs dry. Having said that, even the action in the main story is quite fantastical – a girl eats a daffodil to show her love for a nun, and the Sacred Heart and a Fairy Queen commentate on the lives of the women.
The book is heavy with knowledge and iconography – much of it to do with tradition, femininity and religion. As a writer, I struggle to even begin to think about what the research for this novel would have looked like.
The book is a quick read, with large print. The chronology jumps around, and the reader never becomes bored with where the book is going, because the logic of the book doesn’t act in a forward-moving motion, it jumps around all over the place, linking the experience of one generation of the women with that of another, and jumping backward when reminded of another image or scene.
Though descriptions are dense (“Pearly just cred louder, big long tears, confetti runny rainbow teardrop tears”), they are also economical in a way, with every word working hard for its place on the page. Carmel Bird is a veteran of the art for a reason – she has such tight control over her words.
I regret that it took me a year to read this, and had I known it was going to be so enjoyable, I would have paid more than a dollar for it.