Marion Halligan is a Canberra literary icon. If you walk into Muse restaurant and bookshop in Canberra, you will be greeted by her colourful portrait on the wall. Her expression is pensive and enigmatic, suggestive of the woman herself.
During her impressive career, she has written more than 20 books, including many novels, collections of short stories, non-fiction, and memoir. Her work has been awarded the Pascall Prize, the Age Book of the Year (twice), the Nita Kibble Literary Award, the ACT Book of the Year (three times), as well as achieving multiple short-listings for other major awards, such as the Miles Franklin Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the NBC Banjo Award.
Among literary circles she is revered for her significant body of work, but is also known for her kindness and generosity, her inner sparkle and fire, and her willingness to laugh, tease, and challenge people.
One would think that, with such a successful career, Halligan has led a charmed life, enjoying literary success, travel, writing residencies etc. But she has also suffered great loss, and perhaps this is why she has such generosity of spirit, warmth and humility.
Halligan's latest book, Words for Lucy, is a collection of writings about her daughter Lucy, who was born with a congenital heart defect which caused issues and ill health throughout her life until she died quietly at home, aged 38. There were many visits to the cardiologist at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, repeated bouts of heart failure, frightening high-risk surgeries, endless medications, and restrictions on her physical activity.
As a parent, Halligan endured Lucy's rollercoaster health journey alongside her. She worried and feared, as any mother would. However, she also rejoiced, loved, treasured and lived, truly lived, with her daughter, finding both beauty and acceptance in Lucy's life.
At the beginning of Words for Lucy, Halligan muses on the burden of love. "Love is so important to us," she writes. "We so much need it... When we kiss the lover, marry the beloved, when we nurse the child, we do not know the cost that is beginning to be incurred, and the paradox that the greater the love the greater the price."
Words for Lucy is a collection of moments that make up a child's life and a mother's love: a gathering of anecdotes, memories, stories, other people's recollections and writings, poems, letters. Snippets of memory linked with objects. Unexpected reminders: Lucy's handwritten notes tucked in cookbooks marking recipes she planned to cook. The sound of her voice on the message on her old mobile phone.
With Halligan, we live through the events and memories of Lucy's life. We feel a mother's anguish and pain. The ghosts of the past living in the present. We share a sense of fear and loss. The distance and coldness of surgeons. The terror of being parent to a sick child. We also live exquisite moments of happiness and joy. The minutiae of love.
Halligan paints a picture of her daughter's life with small daubs like a pointillist painting. Her tone is intimate, generous, conversational. You could be sitting at a table with her, sharing a pot of tea or a bottle of wine. There are moments of great sadness - Halligan doesn't shield us from those - yet the book transcends grief and loss to shine with love and hope.
Despite her illness, Lucy's life is full of joy. She suffers, yes, but she has an impressive zest for living and finds great pleasure in small things: books, words, music, art, friendship, letters, a beloved cat, talking on the telephone. Her life is restricted, but rich. At times you wonder if, through her illness, Lucy might have valued her time on Earth more than most of us do. She treasured life, revelled in moments of good health, the small pleasures and achievements that most of us forget to enjoy and celebrate.
Halligan has given us many beautiful books, and Words for Lucy is another of these gifts - a rich tapestry of memory, peppered with vivid detail and beautiful intimate writing. The work brings together writings over both Lucy's and Halligan's lifetimes, and it has clearly been important for Halligan to sit alongside the unbearable loss.
The book comes now as Halligan struggles with her own ailing health. And perhaps, in a way, this work ensures Lucy's immortality.
In reading Words for Lucy, we suffer alongside the author. But above all, we hear Halligan's voice echoing through the book, the ripples of her words extending through the narrative. Through her experiences, as well as our own, we acknowledge that love can, at times, be heavy.
However, as she so wisely reminds us: "You could choose to live without love and then there never would be cost. But who would want to do that?"
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