Last year at the Christchurch Writers festival I went to hear Marion Halligan read from one of her books. She is obviously very popular in her homeland Australia, but she was not an author I knew anything about, and unfortunately I found the excerpt she read to be a bit dull.
I was therefore quite surprised when I was intrigued enough by a review of her latest book, Valley of Grace to reserve it. I then spent a couple of days sick in bed, and found myself (and my dripping nose) transported to Paris, the setting for this book, and obviously somewhere that Halligan is very familiar with.
Central to the story is Fanny, who seems to embody all that is French; elegant, understated and chic. She meets and marries Gerard, a talented restorer of old Parisian buildings. Fanny works in an antiquarian book shop, so there is a ample opportunity via their two professions for Halligan to recount fascinating historical titbits about the history of the city, as well as the story of these two people and their desire to have a child.
For smallish book there are a number of side stories, including memories of the French resistance, a lecherous lecturer and his long suffering wife, death and the process of dying (with a wonderful visit to Lourdes), a heartbreaking story of a hidden and abandoned child, friendships, sexuality and the agonies and pleasures of raising children. There are detailed and luscious descriptions of houses and interiors, gardens full of fresh produce and dainty flowers, descriptions of cakes that sent me diving to the pantry, and a feeling that I wanted to pack my phrase book and head off to Paris tomorrow.
I’m wondering now if I judged Marion Halligan too harshly, perhaps she was just having a bit of a bad day at the Readers and writers festival and chose the wrong passage to read, (or perhaps heaven forbid, it was me, and I had festival fatigue), but whatever the reason I wish she had read a piece from this novel, because I know that I would have been first on the reserve list if she had.