Waiting for Childhood by Sumner Locke Elliott (Harper & Row: $16.95; 256 pages)
Some people think it's love that moves the world, others suggest it's war or depressions, others subscribe to the "great man theory of history." In "Waiting for Childhood," Sumner Locke Elliott postulates the sickening inevitability of death, time and luck. No matter how smart we are, Locke opines, no matter how beautiful or good, we are all caught on the grid of death/time/luck. Whether we ride with these elements or go under or fight or sulk or go down in pure defeat, determines the kind of people we are and how, in turn, we either poison or heal the lives of those around us.
Is that first paragraph ponderous enough? The novel isn't ponderous at all, and the reader hardly notices (until it's too late) that the author is tackling "great themes." We see only the beginnings of a domestic drama with a faintly Victorian quality: At around the turn of the century, the Rev. William Lorde, his wife and seven children (six girls, one boy) look for all the world to be a happy family. Then the reverend crashes over onto a tea table and croaks and their world is shattered. (This novel, then, is a salubrious reminder to all the moderns who dither on about the fragility of marriage and family in this age of divorce; up until 50 years ago, death fulfilled the function of divorce. Life was, certainly, far more precarious then than it is now.)
Mother 'Bails Out'
With the reverend dead, the Lorde family is forced to turn to a rich female relation, who promptly sends them (almost rent free) to live in one of her least attractive properties out in the country. The children face a future of disorganization and poverty. Right about then, the mother chooses to "bail out": She loses her mind and her memory, steps in front of a horse and she's gone too.
Six girls, then, one boy, all smart (to some degree at least), all talented, all deeply human, all so beautifully realized that by the end of the novel we identify them to the point of heartbreak when something bad happens (as indeed something bad must, caught, as they all are, in the web of death/time/luck.
Quickly, now! There's Lily, the eldest, who must take responsibility for the family and who becomes a dedicated socialist; Fred, who makes the mistake of falling in love with one of his sisters but then quickly forgets it; Mary, who gets the hiccups at inopportune times and ends up in a tiny country town married to a war veteran who works his guts out for her; Adnia, who has something like a club foot and must turn her attention to God; Jess, who figures money to be her salvation; Sydney, who has the twin talents of writing good novels and falling in love with the wrong person; and Mignon, the youngest, the "darling"--who sings, who loves, who sees.
Death! You can't argue with it--when your parents are dead, they're dead. You must sink or swim, and at a crucial point in the novel, young Jess (the most beautiful, the most sophisticated and luxury-loving) lets another young woman die, so that she may become the companion to the aforementioned rich female relative. By the end of the narrative, two of the seven children have died as well, though the oldest can't be more than 40. It's not that people set out to die; it just jumps up on you. The reader feels it here, so sadly.
Time! Some of these children are ambitious, some not. It seems, somehow to have little to do with how things turn out. (Sydney, so talented and yearning, has but one wonderful book in her. Mignon, who cares little about her singing, makes a living at it.) But all, all of them lose their youth and must finally settle for what life deals them. Lily worries and frets and grows old before her time. Fred gains weight and his job is meaningless. Adnia, who, when she was young, thought her deformed foot was nothing, just a little joke from God, must turn into an adult with a deformed foot. Hope dies, but if you're lucky, courage may take its place.
Luck! When Jess is out hiking in the hills with that young girl rival for the rich relative's affections, it's luck that makes a cliff fall away, so that Jess can watch the girl fall into infinity. When another of these sisters dies in childbirth, it's luck, bad luck! She's happy, she's in love, she has, as they say, "everything to live for." How you marry is luck. And whether the inheritance comes to you--just luck, pure luck. This is complex stuff.
"Waiting For Childhood" manages at once to be terribly melancholy and extraordinarily exhilarating. You are really asked, as you read this, to wonder--even decide--what is it you want out of life. Would you, for instance, die for love? Kill for money? "Forget" a dubious sexual choice in order to be like everyone else? Devote your life to "art," even if you knew you had only one good book in you, or would never make it out of the chorus line?
I have put off saying that this book is set in Australia. It's entirely irrelevant here. Think of Sydney and Melbourne as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Think of the Outback as the Mojave. Think of yourself as mother, father, sister, brother, worry-wart, invert, flirt. And then go out to buy this book.