Book Review

A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay

The characters’ memories in A Hundred Small Lessons (Allen & Unwin 2017) by Ashley Hay eddy and meander through time just as the Brisbane River that features often in the story, meanders from mountain range to coast. The minutiae of lives are put under the microscope in this gently told story highlighting how the small acts required to build a family and a life, are often undervalued or overlooked for their importance. But equally, it’s about how those who perform these small acts often fail to recognise the importance of them as well.  

The story opens with elderly Elsie who has collapsed in her home. As she lies on the floor she hears the “reverb” of her house: “It held her voice, her husband’s voice, her children’s, and now their children’s in turn – echoes and repetitions lodged in around the skirting boards, around the window frames like those pale motes of dust that had wedged at the edge of the kitchen floor.” The house, situated somewhere on the Brisbane River, is the one constant in this story and claims a role as character itself. “They’d had a long chat, Elsie Gormley and this house, more than sixty years of it.” But this would be the last night Elsie spends in her home, but readers relive the many years that she has through her flashbacks throughout the story.

The house is sold. Lucy, Ben and baby Tom, move in. Like Elsie before her, this is Lucy’s first home. Lucy feels the pressure as a new mother to build a family within its walls; walls that seem to whisper with stories of Elsie, her presence compounded further by things Lucy finds left behind by her. Elsie becomes something of a vardøger to Lucy: “spirits who travelled ahead of you in time, doing the things you’d do next.” Lucy is exhausted by the demands of motherhood as much as she is by feelings that she fails to measure up to her vardøger.

But the parallel lives of these mothers – Elsie and Lucy – are plagued by many of the same doubts and fears. Each feels regret, then guilt for that regret, at having to make sacrifices in their own lives in order to be a mother. But equally, they, and those people around them, often fail to see how the many small lessons they give, the many small acts they perform, have a collective force to do good.

Space – space travel, rockets, stars, planets, the first moon landing – is threaded throughout the story in subtle ways. Hay is an award-winning science writer, so this might be a topic of particular interest to her, or it might be something she has a special relationship with in her own family, hence its use. But for me the references to space worked as a metaphor for the infinite opportunities that are available for people to explore, engage in, respond to and ultimately grow from within their world.

Whether metaphor or an author’s playfulness for science is of little consequence though, as is Hay’s meaning behind many of the other metaphorical subtleties layered throughout the story. What is important though, is that Hay’s writing is of the best kind: in not over-explaining she respectfully leaves room for the reader to insert their own lives into the text so that the story might become theirs alone.

A Hundred Small Lessons is a novel that lingers in the mind at its end. All the small lessons spoken of coalesced for me, the way droplets of water do. Collectively they form a large and powerful image of the many small acts that ultimately define who we are.