Lee Whitmore, Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016)
The host of a Radio National books program regularly disparages family histories. ‘We’re just not interested,’ he says. But he’s wrong. Not because all or even most family histories are gems, but because Sturgeon’s revelation –’Ninety percent of everything is crap’ – is as valid here as it is for comics or science fiction. It’s just wrong to disparage a whole genre on the basis of even a large number of poor examples.
Ada Louise isn’t just a family history, it’s also a comic, so it also belongs to a medium often targeted by literary snobbishness. Come to think of it, it’s in a third outsider category as well: it’s self-published. At least, I can’t find any reference to Susan Lane Studio on the internet. The copy I read belongs to a friend, and is number 65 of a limited edition of 100 copies.
The good news is that Ada Louise is definitely in the non-crap ten percent of all three categories.
When Lee Whitmore was about eight years old her maternal grandmother came to live with her family. The grandmother – Ada Louise – was very old and frail and not at all interested in the children. ‘Very occasionally there was a glint of amusement in her eyes,’ an introduction tells us, ‘but mostly she just looked wistful, even sad.’ In what Whitmore’s website describes as a ‘loose series of episodic moments strung together on a time line’ the book sets out to answer the questions that puzzled the young girl: ‘What was it that had made my grandmother this way? What had happened in her life?’
We first see Ada Louise as a tiny figure in a two-page drawing of ‘British settlement Invercargill’, New Zealand in 1885. A speech bubble in the bottom right corner of the townscape reads, ‘Hurry home, Ada,’ and on the next spread the fourteen year old Ada runs with her violin case through a windy yard towards her front door. In the following pages she is absorbed into the cheerful chaos of her many-sistered life, and in the course of the book’s nearly 600 page s her story emerges in a discontinuous way that creates a sense that these are family stories, legends almost, rendered into a coherent whole.
We follow Ada’s fortunes and those of her sisters as they mature, marry, become variously rich and poor and have children of their own. These affectionately realised characters deal with scandal, frustrated ambition, betrayal, heartbreak and almost Shakespearean restoration. There’s also some Micawberish comedy.
The book’s seven chapters follow Ada and her family from New Zealand to Melbourne (when she is 30, in 1901), to Sydney six years later. The cities and suburbs of the action are lovingly created: a church in Darlinghurst, a Prahran mansion, inner-city Sydney streetscapes, Flinders Street Station,Waverley Cemetery; trams, trains, early cars, and the ocean in its many moods.There are cucumber sandwiches, family singsongs around the piano
The comics medium is beautifully suited to this project. From the family tree at the beginning to the hand-lettered postscript, Whitmore is intimately present, not just in her words, but in the movements of her hand recorded in the richly crosshatched charcoal drawings. You can see examples on her website. Here’s the spread introducing Chapter 2:
Ada Louise is the tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.