Virginia Barton

Delicate palate on milk and honey

Catholic Herald, 18 September 1987     


Review: Milk and Honey by Elizabeth Jolley (Viking £10.95)



Move over P White, here comes E Jolley. A lot of exciting things are coming out of Australia these days and this Midlands-born Australian writer, who will be new to many English readers, is one of them. She won the 1985 New South Wales Premiers’ Literary Award for this book and some of her other work has been published here by Penguin and Viking.

To a fastidious palate Milk and Honey may both upset and alarm but the writing is of that quality which lifts the contents above the level of the merely shocking. It is a taut story of powerful contrasts with genuine tension from first to last.

Less than 200 pages long it contains passages of great descriptive power and the alien landscape, closely-observed plants and shadowy interiors are acutely evoked. The small cast of generally unsympathetic characters play out their story against an Australian background more lurid and phantasmagorical than we are quite used to. Like discovering a nest of earwigs within an innocent lettuce.

To reveal the plot would give the game away, a few hints must suffice.

Jacob, a boy of unusual musical talent, is placed as a paying-boarder with a reclusive immigrant Austrian family. The cleanliness, order, culinary habits and manners of Old Vienna are transplanted to Australia and Jacob is swiftly absorbed into an inward-looking somewhat strangled atmosphere.

Leopold, the head of the family, teaches him music, the Aunts teach him everything else (for regular schooling is quickly abandoned) and Louise, the saintly daughter is his playmate. Her idiot brother, half-hidden from the world and repellent to Jacob, dominates them all.

Self-absorbed and neurotic, Jacob is drawn by an encircling and ever-tightening mesh of “love” and oppressive concern into the heart of the household – to an extent where he almost loses touch with the real world.

But playing the ‘cello with the local orchestra exposes him to Madge, a hack violinist, and she proves to be an irresistable and fatal attraction. The irreconcilable emotions culminate in a firey conclusion – which comes as something of a relief to the reader who by this time is strung almost to breaking point! After this purifying blaze the jig-saw re-arranges itself into a sort of peace.

The passions that seethed under the lace-mats and innocuous dishes of sugar cakes seem spent. The milk and honey of the title is both apt and deceptive, a clever title for a book I read with distaste but couldn’t put down.



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