Reviewing The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer by Edwina Preston

February 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Several pages into the debut novel from Melbourne-based writer Edwina Preston, I was reminded of a book that is among one of my favourities: Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Like Hard Times, The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer emphasises the circus as a place of wonder and community, but that’s not what inspired me to make the connection (though, it didn’t hurt). What did inspire the connection was Preston’s employment of the narrator as a storytelling device.

The experiences of the townspeople of Canyon are relayed by an omnipresent narrator. Just as Dickens does, Preston’s narrator directs the reader through the action and divulges its own opinions on events as they occur. The reader is whisked from one location to another and made privy to the inner thoughts and motivations of each character, but only to the extent that the narrator deems necessary.

We must leave [Mrs Hammer] now, for her thoughts are of an uncharacteristically abstract bent this night and she will not for some time be roused from them.

The ease with which the narrator navigates through events highlights the fictitious and constructed nature of the novel in general, and this novel, in particular. The constant reminders that this story is, like all stories, a construction, allows the reader to view the characters objectively, not unlike if they were pawns in a game of chess or specimens in a lab experiment.

But what’s it all about? A mystery surrounds Mrs Ivorie Hammer. Though she is without a doubt a “woman of great example” in the desolate gold-mining town of Canyon, her familial origins are a puzzle, even to her. When tumultuous winds sweep through the area, ripping the town apart, the people of Canyon have no choice but to make the hazardous journey to the next town over, Pitch, where they settle on its outskirts. The residents of Pitch are uncertain about their new squatters, many of whom are descendants of circus folk, so only a few manage to create a life in the prim and proper city; Ivorie Hammer among them. It is in Pitch that the truth about Ivorie’s past is unearthed.

Discovering the identity of Ivorie’s mother is not the driving force of the story as one would expect. The reader learns who Ivorie’s mother is quite early on, and consequently, spends much of the rest of the novel mentally urging Ivorie to do a bit of leg-work and make the discovery for herself. Progress is frustratingly slow, and while many things happen along the way, there is often not enough activity to quell the sense that much of the story drags, especially during the middle. I attribute this in part to the language used, which had me reaching for my dictionary on more than one occasion. Even moments that should be exciting, like the climactic court scene near the end of the novel, lack a certain punch, the moment weighed down by excessive words.

Professor Thaddeus produced three more nods of the same duration and repeated his affirmation.

There is no doubt that Edwina Preston is a skilled writer, who succeeds in creating a fascinating and detailed world. Preston’s descriptions are incredibly visual, allowing the reader to picture everything with startling clarity; Canyon is washed with sepia, a landscape I imagined in the style of Dorothy’s Kansas on the MGM sound-stage.

The wind had always made life difficult in Canyon. It was a saboteur of hair and hats. It could disturb the line of an ironed shirt, or disperse irresponsibly one’s careful stack of newspapers. But there was nothing malicious about it. It did not rip off roofs. It did not demolish town monuments. Until one day…when Julian Paratha unearthed, from outside a shed on his parents’ property, a very odd, very auspicious-looking bone.

Preston’s characters are painted just as vividly. Mrs Po and Borrel Sweetley are my favourites, not because they’re particularly likeable, but because they suffer intriguing internal conflicts, which prompt them to act passionately and obstinately.

By no means an easy read, The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer is a compelling journey, not necessarily for the revelations made at its conclusion, because these are somewhat unsatisfying, but for how absorbing its world is. I appreciated reading an Australian novel that couldn’t immediately be identified as such; the outback and suburbs do not feature here. Rather than relying on these old tropes, Preston has succeeded in creating a world in a bubble, removed from our everyday reality, and I, for one, greatly enjoyed visiting.

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