Book Review of Carol Lefevre’s The Happiness Glass

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Reviewed by Angela Wauchop

“For years she had imagined these plants belonged to the animal kingdom: hippopotamus; rhinoceros; agapanthus.

The hiss of sprinklers was the music of childhood, and she listened to it now with sad delight as she waited for a sign, something to tell her what to do about her grief.”

 

The Happiness Glass is one-of-a-kind, with its part memoir, part fiction structure. Yet no section of this insightful and heartbreaking book does not resound with a deep truth and the air of greatly-moving accuracy. Winner of the 2008 Nita B. Kibble Literary Award, author and scholar Carol Lefevre is now based in Adelaide, but has also lived and worked around the world.

The author is a scene-setter and does so delightfully from the very beginning of this well-paced and absorbingly personal book. Set from 1956 onwards, this collection of short memoirs and stories begins with potent recollections of life in rural New South Wales. The threat of childhood polio; the menacing backdrop of nuclear testing at Maralinga; the success and excitement of Sputnik; and the controversy of racial segregation in Australia pepper the book’s authentic and starkly-covered territory.

With great momentum, Lefevre transports the reader overseas and back again, to New Zealand, Apartheid-Era South Africa, England, and South America. All the while, the development of living and writing, and reading and more living is gently unfurled across the thought-provoking pages.

The Happiness Glass openly explores and discusses difficult subjects such as personal loss, infertility, adoption, identity and family estrangement. But I was also chuffed by Lefevre’s astute and witty observations of the past and present: “[…] women in the 1950s masked their pregnant stomachs as if the sight of them would betray what they had been up to in the night.” Images of pregnant ladies in the ’70s and ’80s filled my head – gigantic kaftans and maternity dresses with all the couture and shapeliness of a seersucker art smock.

Nostalgia and homesickness are recurring backdrops. The book is enlightening in its discussion and observations of a sense of home and belonging. In fact, certain passages particularly resonated with me, as if the author was able to put into words a feeling I had never been able to pinpoint. Most of us have probably felt this at some stage: “Homesickness arises when we are unable to inhabit the same space that our memories occupy. What arrives then, if we are susceptible, is a creeping grief […]”. Spot-on!

One of the precious insights I have gained from reading this book is the meaning of home and belonging, and how sadness, joy and indeed any emotion can be so ingrained in the walls and rafters of what you consider a mere inanimate structure while you are living in it. The Happiness Glass also reminds me of Beau Taplin’s quote about home not being where you are from, but where you belong.

 “Grief wakes up parts of us that we haven’t known were asleep. Old griefs bed down beneath layers of scar tissue but can be laid open at the lightest touch.”