REVIEW BY PETER PIERCE
THE AGE and SYDNEY MORNING HERALD 6/2/2010
In her ninth novel, the dark but exuberant fantasy, Child of the Twilight, Carmel Bird leads us on a historical and geographical traverse of Catholic Europe. It is thronged with priests, nuns and believers, with churches full of statuary, places where the miraculous is made concrete in such figures as the Black Madonna and the Bambinello, the Infant Jesus in the Franciscan Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome. The statue’s supposed healing powers attract supplicants from around the world.
The plot turns on the disappearance of the Bambinello on a rainy night in 1994, and the attempts to recover him by Diana Mean (collector of Black Virgins who is dedicated to completing her late husband’s history of them) and painter and art teacher Rosita Vienna, for whom the statue has become her “own baby, her lost child, her stolen darling”.
These details are a reminder of the familiar fictional territory to which Bird returns in this novel. She has written often of the Means with their flower farm in the fastness of north-western Tasmania. The central figure in this instalment is young Corazon Mean, who accompanies Diana and Rosita to Europe. When the narrator of Child of the Twilight, 19 year-old Sydney Peony Kent, turns up in Tasmania for Corazon’s wedding she exclaims (having grown up in California) “this was totally yesteryear”. Further, the house where Corazon grew up is buried deep, yes like a house in a fairy tale, in a small forest of old European trees.” One of the inquiries of the novel is into how emphatically the old world has planted itself in Australia, in brick and in belief, and how tenaciously it resists the encroachments of the new.
Another inquiry takes us back to the heart of Bird’s imagining, and to a key business of Australian fiction. This is her fascination with the fate of lost children. Her is a memory of Lovelygod Mean, “a child in Tasmania swallowed by the forest (whose story Bird told in The Bluebird Café), here the story of Fatima and Lourdes, the aunts whom Sydney never knew, as they died in childhood. Diana has lost an infant son. Another child is killed in a car accident, while Viola Vinnicombe may be the victim of a tweedy Cambridge paedophile.
Bird seems to regard preying on helpless children as a mordant and unchangeable fact of the modern world. If Sydney Kent’s mother, Avila (her business Marriages Performed at Sea), has “a vast catalogue of tales of babies and children lost and gone, in one way or another”, so does Bird. Yet much as the lost and the dead throng her novel, so do children who have survived the circumstances of their birth, and sometimes orphaning or abandonment.
There is much playfulness in Child of the Twilight too, generated and controlled by the artful narrator, who explains to us how easy it is to smuggle fact into fiction, the better to disguise it. That is how we learn what is perhaps the truth of the multiple disappearances of the Bambinello. Sydney is also pleased to reveal to us “Sex in Venice” where Rufus Gigli and Cora are lovers: “This might almost be a mediaeval legend of love and loss and quest and love again. Either that or…a soap.”
Bird has followed an eccentric and determined path in her writing. Her imagination has a cohesiveness, often self-referential, that puts one in mind of hardly anyone else in Australian literature. Perhaps Barbara Hanrahan or Elizabeth Jolley, but the comparisons do not neatly fit. Bird entertains magic, discovers how vital are the apparently most flimsy connections between people, never mocks the most extreme behaviour, whether credulous or cunning. Child of the Twilight has a fuller and richer cast than has been introduced here. Its members dwell in the superstitious world that Bird has conjured, one compounded of dread, and faith.