The clink for the stout

September 6, 2010

Book Review

When it rains
By Maggie Mackellar
Publication details

There’s a song that the blacksmith stepfather Jo Gargery sings with his boy Pip in the forge in Dickens’Great Expectations that’s simple and beguiling and sung in turns.

…Beat it out, beat it out – Old Clem!
With a clink for the stout – Old Clem!
Blow the fire, blow the fire – Old Clem!
Roaring dryer, soaring higher – Old Clem!

It seems like an obscure reference but Maggie Mackellar’s new memoir When it rains reverberates with the strike of hammer on steel as she, in a very beautiful and courageous act of industrial art and humanity works her broken world back into shape, one memory, one word at a time. To look at the cover now all I can hear is the clink of the forge – the forge of a very big heart that’s still beating despite the pressure of other hearts stopping. The clink for the stout.

When it rains is a memoir about the loss of two pivotal people in Maggie’s life whose very beings seemed to be its fabric, patent, orbit and axis. First her husband, in tragic and confusing circumstances. Then shortly after, her mother, to cancer, in shockingly quick turn.

The narrative, which unfolds like a Helen Garner style examination of a tough issue, has its own relentless commitment to illumination that marks the best writing in this country and any other. It moves back and forth through the linear events of Maggie’s loss like a sheepdog – worrying, nipping, barking, until the whole broken mess starts to, not so much make sense, but fall into line. And, miraculously, and against the odds – beautifully – it does.

The writing is beyond self assured. It’s the performance of a seasoned athlete – graceful, underplayed and robust. Its also marked by humour often enough for us to really see the author’s journey has done her good. While I cried, I also laughed at lines like “My mother was a plumber. I could do anything.” Throughout, a supple voice guides the reader through the book in a way that is ironically soothing in the face of the subject matter.

I was amazed Maggie managed to get through the book without mentioning either her husband’s or her mother’s names. It occurred to me that had I attempted such a technique my grammar would collapse. But not on Maggie’s watch. There will be no collapsing, in spite of everything. The absence of names is powerful, reiterating Maggie’s purpose, like the book’s narrative structure and imagery – God love us, even its animals – especially its animals, have something to add to the question of how a single mother is meant to conduct a life in the aftermath of tragedy. That’s what Old Clem knew perhaps, watching the smithy work the fire. Maggie comes through suffering suggesting as much. The fire burns on as it must when the rain set ins, so vittles and warmth could greet the young ones when they awake. So we can continue, strong of arm and heart.

Astonishingly, while When it rains cost Maggie everything, it cost me $29.95. Do the maths readers – just go and buy it. A book like this is a must for anyone seeking inspiration from a true survival story.

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4 Responses to “The clink for the stout”

  1. Susan Dawe Says:

    Brilliant Ben. I’m sure SMH would love to publish on Saturday.

  2. Simon Says:

    I’m teary reading that introduction – don’t think I can manage the book! Seriously though, it is obviously something marvelously told. I am inspired if tragic accounts can lead to such a feeling. Thank you for sharing this… and Maggie in advance… like Pip at the fire, there is strengthening in seeing clink for the stout.

  3. Lloyd Says:

    Ben I am really looking forward to reading Maggie’s story. You write beautifully yourself. Such a gift for creating moving imagery with words which at once engage and lift the spirit. Will forward on to friends.

  4. Kim Rink Says:

    A very well written book review, Ben Dawe! I agree with both Susan & Lloyd. Keep writing & reviewing.
    Such a delight for literary lovers.


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