Monday, January 30, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012:

Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace (Allen & Unwin 2009) is a tender and warm treatment of many of life’s challenging aspects: love, relationships, procreation, care of children, religious belief, personal and cultural legacy. To name just some of her major themes.

The novel is set in France, a marked contrast to some earlier works such as The Point that take place in Australia. Its history, culture and architecture occupy much of the story. The presence of a celebrity academic philosopher in the story is emblematic of this context. 

The French fixation with Louis XIV, the Revolution and the German occupation is never far away. The present is still haunted by the ghosts of partisans and collaborators alike.

Interaction with the built environment is also a key element, whether it be homes, renovations or public buildings. So are books and art. It wouldn’t be France without an Art exhibition even if the paintings of flowers fails to inspire. The bookshop, Le Vieux Latin, has a more authentic flavour.

Yet it is the personal that most absorbs Marion. She explores the nature of relationships: love, partnership, monogamy, brief encounters, infidelity. These include single gender partners, both gay and lesbian. The influence of parents is also an essential part of the lives of many of her characters.

Begetting and care of children is a central theme. Whether planned, accidental or unwanted, procreation is pervasive. Whether it is love child or wild child, the flotsam and jetsam of human desire wash up at regular intervals. We encounter sexual exploitation, shocking amorality and complex moral dilemmas. Marion is not afraid to explore the dark side. The treatment of children damaged by disease or by those who should protect them is a disturbing aspect of the narrative.

Religion is never far from the surface. The title comes from the Val de Grace, a Paris church built by Anne of Austria to commemorate the birth of her son Louis XIV after twenty-three years of marriage. The mummified hearts of the royals were apparently used in paint mixture for Art works during the revolution. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t quite gel. A trip to Lourdes for a son and ailing mother brings a strange encounter but no revelations.

Given Halligan’s interest in cuisine, it is surprising that food does not bring more joy in this French setting. The culinary fare is disappointing: unappetising lunch at an upmarket restaurant; a housewarming offering of sushi; steak and chips chosen over “excellent tripe sausages” at a corner bistro. It seems that fois gras and confit of duck cause indigestion for the expectant mother. The best eating happens on a honeymoon in Turkey. (A portion of Louis’ heart is also supposed to have been eaten but this bizarre gastronomic incident is not mentioned).

Two other aspects of the novel were annoying. Firstly, it has too many characters that are often just loosely connected. Secondly, just too much happens. In some ways Valley of Grace is more a series of vignettes than a coherent novel. Less in greater depth would have been more satisfying. But don't be put off. Her intimate but fluid style makes for a good read.

For all the human failings she presents, Marion Halligan leaves us with hope, hope for “happy beginnings… when a child is born.” Hope to build on.