Frances O’Beirne, the young heroine of The Commandant (1975), offers a key to the genius of Jessica Anderson: ‘I am made up of hundreds of persons, and I never know which will come out.’ Open Anderson’s eight published works of fiction and you’ll be presented with different worlds, all-encompassing, entirely absorbing, real.
Nora Porteous, the narrator of Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Anderson’s most popular novel, though not her finest – because The Commandant is that – adds clarification: ‘We were all great story-tellers.’ The happiness a consummate novelist bestows upon a reader – the feeling that under no circumstances can you bear not to know what happens next, nor can you bear to come to end of the tale – this was Jessica Anderson’s great narrative gift.
She possessed many others: a precise command of the ironic and descriptive word and an observant eye that contemplated human inadequacies in the manner of a knowing yet sympathetic bird. Observing and listening gave her a formidable grasp of dialogue and the human comedy inherent therein. To all this she added a prose of simplicity and elegance, capable, as it is in The Commandant, of great lyrical beauty. For all these reasons Jessica Anderson was a most astute chronicler of the Australia of her time.
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