When Colleen first got the idea for the One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite, I immediately wanted to search out a lesser known Aussie writer to talk about. Only I wanted someone so lesser known I’d never heard of them. So, of course, I e-mailed Justine. She got back to me with a great list, but I’d been searching the wonderful Inside a Dog archives too, and one of the names she mentioned had already clicked with me there: Ursula Dubosarsky. The local library only had one of her books, The Red Shoe, which had been published in the U.S. this past May. I reserved it, hoping it was as good as it looked.
Reader, it was even better. I always know I’ve found a winner when I start reading aloud to Christopher within the first two pages. This one, I was reading from so much I think he thought it was a Margaret Mahy novel at first. And there are similarities there — particularly in the deft, brilliant use of third-person omniscient narration, but I’m writing a paper on that so I will spare you the writing wonk.
The Red Shoe begins with a Once Upon a Time, older sister Frances being begged by charming, high-spirited young Matilda to read her a story. Frances proceeds to read Hans Christian Andersen’s rather gruesome version of "The Red Shoes." As it gets darker and darker, Matilda can barely stand it, breaking in with: "I don’t like this story," said Matilda definitely. "I don’t want to learn to read if stories are like that." After being read the dubious "happy ending," Dubosarsky finishes the opening segment with these devastatingly perfect, understated paragraphs:
Their mother had some red shoes, with golden buckles and shiny black heels. They made a clicking sound on the pavement, like a tap dancer. Matilda loved those shoes.
"Red shoes," whispered Matilda under the blanket.
And she lay there quite still, listening to the sounds of the morning, but somewhere inside her she thought she might be afraid.
(Aside: This is a really stupid thing to admit, but I have a huge prejudice against big chunks of italicized text in books. And yet, this opening bit is just such a chunk, and there are a few others within the book — they’ve proved to me it can work without being distracting.)
There’s a gorgeous sense of dread, of shadows conjured, in the opening, but there are also moments of intense humor. Set during the 1950s in Sydney, the novel travels between the view from inside each of three sisters — Matilda (the youngest), Frances, and Elizabeth, Dubosarsky perfectly captures the differences that come from being the younger, older, or middle child, and also from being these specific girls. The humor comes naturally from those things. From eldest sister Elizabeth’s nervous breakdown at 15, which brings their father home — briefly — from the merchant navy in WWII to try and deal with it. Or from Matilda’s own skewed view of the world, spying on the strange men who move in next door.
Perfectly conjuring the period, and yet creating a completely accessible story, Dubosarsky contrasts chapters focusing on the family with interstitials from the Sydney newspapers of the time, stories of polio, the H-bomb, and a defecting Russian spy (who happens to under the watch of those strange men next door).
This isn’t a fantasy novel. There is magic in it though, even if it’s not really magic. There’s Matilda’s invisible friend Floreal 22, who came out of a radio show of The Argonauts, and the fairy story at the start, and a general sensibility that readers of smart fantasy will find appealing. But it isn’t a light novel, by any means, despite the humor infused throughout. It explores the weight events of the world can put on families, and the complexities of families themselves. And yet, it comes to a stunningly, legitimately hopeful ending.
Nothing here is heavy-handed. Everything is perfectly balanced. It’s a beautiful, beautiful novel. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Dubosarksy’s work.
And here endeth my contributions to the fabulous day of Aussie love. I’ll post the direct links to everything everybody did later on at the end of this post.