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Book Review : Gothic Tale With Plenty of Secret Sins to Reveal

May 26, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Milk and Honey by Elizabeth Jolley (Persea: $14.95; $8.95)

Just as Mazatlan is sister city to Santa Monica for good reason, so too is Elizabeth Jolley's "Milk and Honey" sister novel to Thomas Keneally's very recent "A Family Madness." Both are Australian (naturally); both are about the aching nostalgia the refugee feels for the world he has lost. (In the Keneally novel, a Belorussian even refers to that lost patch of bog and forest as a land of "milk and honey.") Most important, in this case, both books deal with the inability of some people--as nationalities, as individuals--to change .

"In the new land," Jolley writes of the World War II wave of European immigrants, "they were scattered like rocks, not mixing with the soil but, from time to time, settling on the fragments of other such cones from which they drew sustenance in order to preserve themselves and remain unchanged for as long as possible." To shift metaphors, if Australia--like America--is a melting pot, some people just won't, can't melt .

Icky Things in a Gluey Tale

To tell the story, then, of Europeans in a strange land, Jolley falls back on a European form. This is a gothic tale, complete with a house that's like a prison, a stairway that leads the-hero-knows-not-where, an unfortunate madman locked up in the top of the house, a swamp/dump full of nasty debris, and some nasty 19th-Century brother-sister incest thrown in.

This is a gluey novel, and gluey, icky, ticky things hold the work together. A feebleminded character has a set of false teeth, with wires and chewed food, that turns up repeatedly. A young girl's underwear is always soiled, and though a raft of women keep scrubbing and scrubbing, they always smell of something , even if it's only soap and old age. Above all, the milk-and-honey motif has been altered, so that bees keep drowning in honey, dying of sweetness, and Young Jacob, our hero, spends the first half of this book downing quantities of wine and sweets, while the man of the house keeps calling him a "prince of a fellow."

Ancient Family Aspiration

Or is that "prince of the cello ?" Young Jacob is a first-generation Australian whose father has literally toiled in the vineyards so that his son may fulfill an ancient family aspiration: to become a musician of genius. When he is still a child, Jacob is sent to board in a home where music is "everything." He won't simply learn to play, he'll live in a hothouse of music and devotion to Higher Things. Thus he not only learns the cello but "lives" lieder : "And every secret sin arraign/Till nothing unavenged remain" is what Jacob hears, instead of the Australian Top 40. . . .

The city is all around, but this place is utterly apart from it, and from the present. Also, it's full of secret sins of every variety. Jacob is befriended by Louise, the daughter of the house, who knows far more than she's telling. Leopold, Louise's father, lauds Jacob's musical genius, but he's being generously paid to do so. Two maiden sisters of Leopold, Tante Heloise and Tante Rosa, are far, far from being maidens. And the idiot boy Waldemar--he of the food-encrusted false teeth--is a total mystery. He still speaks with a heavy Middle-European accent, and speaks as well in riddles. Who is he? Why is he here? Whose "fault" is he?

It's difficult to go on with the "story," because one or two false moves could give the entire plot away. It can be said that Leopold often takes young Jacob across the swamp/dump to the insane asylum just over the way, where they give singing lessons to the inmates. It can be revealed that one or two of these inmates are important to the mysteries in this strange house. It can be said that when Elizabeth Jolley invokes the "secret sin" refrain, she isn't just whistling Dixie. Every character here has secret sins to burn, so to say, and just as in "Jane Eyre," a ghastly fire is the last gothic device used to resolve the plot.

Tempted by Dreadful Coarseness

A dreadful coarseness is what tempts Jacob away from his sickly, sweetish domicile; what and who this coarseness involves, I can't say. But it is icky; it is gross. . . .

Two things come to mind reading "Milk and Honey." First, if you're a Elizabeth Jolley fan--if you've read "Mr. Scobie's Riddle," or "Miss Peabody's Inheritance," or the very well-received "Foxy Baby"--you can't help but wonder what's happened to Elizabeth!? There's nothing funny here, the plays-on-words are somber, the tone is heartbreaking. Only at the (unrevealable) end does it dawn on the dim reader (me) that, Ah! This is what she's doing. How neat!

The second thing is, why spend valuable time reading stories from Australia when, after all, we're in America. The reason, the towering reason that goes beyond the wild and elegant genius of some of these writers, is that our two countries mirror each other in a hundred ways--to find spinach on your own teeth, it's often necessary to look into a mirror. And smile. And sometimes cry.

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