Mary-Rose MacColl has been an important player in the Brisbane literary scene for as long as I’ve been hovering at its edges. As a writer, most importantly, but also as a teacher of, and advocate for, writers, via festivals and writers programs, hers is a name I associate with the process of writing as much as with her novels and essays. Similarly, when I first read a little of the backstory around the writing of In Falling Snow, I was as drawn to the novel as an example of how a writer writes, as I was to its compelling story.
In Falling Snow tells the story of Iris Crane, an elderly widow who lives a quiet life in Brisbane, worrying more about her granddaughter, Grace, a headstrong doctor juggling work with children, than she does about herself. Iris is a mesmerising character from the get –go thanks to the tender authenticity of her narrative voice. It struck me immediately how rarely I read a novel voiced (in part) by an elderly woman. The ways in which MacColl renders her combination of naivety about aspects of the modern world with the recognition of her own rich and eventful life is refreshing and skilfully written. How often do we judge the elderly based on their current limitations rather than the wealth of experience inevitably gained through a long life?
Things change suddenly for Iris when she receives an invitation to a reunion in France, where she served as a hospital nurse in World War 1. As a young woman, Iris took off to Europe on a mission to locate her brother who enlisted despite being under age. En route she met Miss Ivens – a charismatic Scot establishing a field hospital in an old abbey at Royaumont. The invitation brings back memories and ghosts from the distant past and Iris must determine whether it’s time for certain buried stories to be brought out into the light.
The narrative moves between time frames, and between the perspectives of Iris and Grace. The young Iris carries the weight of responsibility on her shoulders – having been a surrogate mother to her brother after their own mother’s death – but remains inexperienced about many aspects of travel, war, men and human nature itself. She makes a delightful narrator in the earlier part of the book and personifies the curious mix of naivety and enthusiasm that accompanied many young Australians on the ‘adventure’ of going to war in the days of heavy propaganda and devotion to the Empire. Iris has a subtle inferiority about her Australianness: she feels her accent is “harsh, like the summer sun” compared to some of the “deep and melodious” British voices around her. Yet, Iris’ father steps in as a complex antidote to this; having lost a brother in the Boer War he tells Iris that Australia isn’t Britain and “…shouldn’t be in a British war”. This variety of perspectives on each of the novel’s big themes steers it away from being a sentimental war memoire or history lesson.
McColl has a lot to say about parenting and gender roles, juxtaposing the position of women as professionals and homemakers over the ages. There are questions drawn about what constitutes mothering – is it the giving birth or the nurturing and responsibility that makes a mother? Gender is significant in the book’s medical environments. Royaumont has an all-female staff tending to male soliders; whereas back in 1970s Brisbane, Grace’s maternity ward is dominated by officious male obstetricians who lack compassion for the women in their care. Grace, in fact, fights her own daily ‘war’ against the hospital hierarchy. Matters of heredity and lineage are also highlighted when Grace’s son shows signs of a genetic illness.
MacColl also makes comment on the ways we perceive of age. Grace treats a pregnant teen who has little power over the delivery method, or the future, of her child; whereas war time puts teenagers at the front line. Another theme worthy of mention is memory – with all its heightened colours and tricky false impressions. The elderly Iris describes her life vividly through sensory recollections: “…Royaumont was full of smells, the perfume we sprinkled on our beds to try to rid ourselves of the awful reek of decay […], the clean smell of snow, […] the spring flowers and fresh cut grass of summer.” There is great poignancy in the way a quiet life provides opportunity to ‘stop and smell the roses’ – even if the roses in question are long since gone from a faraway garden.
MacColl’s story is increasingly complicated as the novel progresses and there is a sense that she has tried to cover too many aspects of her chosen subjects; however, there are few things more complicated than family, and McColl respects the reader’s ability to keep up. She, rightly, avoids oversimplification of either the legacies of war or the endless complexities of matters of the heart.
MacColl has written (on her own website and elsewhere) of the lengthy research process that accompanied this novel, which takes as its starting point the true story of the women of Royaumont. The extensive detail provided in the novel suggests many hours of reading took place before the writing started. MacColl visited the abbey and has tweeted images of its darkly handsome rooms. She completed the novel’s writing as part of a residency program in Banff, Canada, where she drew inspiration from the special ambience of a snowy climate. I was moved and educated by In Falling Snow, but also, in the current environment of persistent electronic noise and dubious blockbusters, I found pleasure in the romantic image of a writer muddling her way through library resources, following the scent of a story all the way to France and having the time and space to tackle her craft in an encouraging work space. MacColl’s lived experience may or may not exactly have paralleled the wondrous mental picture I’m taking from her notes (not all the time, at least) but in writing In Falling Snow I think the author has created two stories: one for Iris, and one for anyone who celebrates the art of writing.
In Falling Snow is published by Allen & Unwin and I thank them kindly for my copy.
This review will also be linked to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.