Blue in the Red House by Sarah Madden
Obiter Publishing (2018). RRP: $19.95
Reviewed by SJ Mannion
Sarah Madden is a writer based in Australia. This is her first novella, a magic realist, experimental nonfiction account of her diagnosis with autism when she was 34 years old. In September of 2014 Sarah was awarded a Write-Ability Fellowship through Writers Victoria. A number of her short stories and articles have been previously and variously published under the name of Sarah Widdup.
This is an interesting beast indeed. A hybrid of memoir and magic realism (the latter is particularly suited to memoir, I think?), yet not at all large or lengthy, or cumbersome, as you might expect from such a thing. A pretty creature too. It looks and feels good, the bright colours (blues and red) catch the eye and the paper is plush and pleasing to the touch. A sumptuous velveteen delight. The writing has am elemental smoothness too, like running water, it pours over you, at times refreshing, at times relaxing. A ‘stream of consciousness’ fluid and fluent. And again like water, it can be both startling –
‘…each finger-nail a little ocular substitute, gleaming wetly just as an eyeball would.’
(Chapter 6, p. 50)
– and soporific.
‘Minutes were about the best thing to catch, unless you were a window. Snatch a moment and you’d have it forever.’
(Chapter 7, p. 55)
Beats counting sheep.
It is witty too. I snorted a couple of times. There are some wonderful phrases, surprising and deliciously original. The ping of a true thing will sing out:
‘…Ms. De Beer would be mentally preening and safe in the knowledge that her idea of nice was, in fact, the nicer nice.’
(Chap 2, p. 19)
And don’t we all love that kind of security?
There is also great poignancy:
‘Life has a way of creeping over everything when your heart can’t hold it anymore,…’
(Chapter 3, p. 35)
‘It would all need cleaning off, especially the sadness.’
(Chapter 3, p. 38)
I could pluck a quote from every page of this book and then do it all over again. Almost every line is quotable. And most of them memorable. The writing has the kind of simplicity that is truly complex. The author, a rich and gorgeously skewed view. A notable and celebratory different-ness is at work here. For that reason it is no easy read and not to be rushed. I simply love this chapter; it is so deeply resonant, I will quote it in its entirety:
‘There had been a softening of Ms. De Beer as she’d passed through the house to the yard. It would have been a welcome change to her friends and family, had it not been too late to make amends with everyone she had lost in the wake of herself.’
(Chapter 8, p. 59)
I am still savouring the eloquence and accomplishment of that slice of rue and regret. And this book does take a measured appreciation … and a considered digestion. If it reminds me of anything or anyone it is James Joyce and Ulysses. The clarity of the vocabulary as opposed to the opacity of meaning? Something about the encompassing nature of the reading experience perhaps … the reader swallows the language, can almost taste the shape of the words and lines, even smelling them seems possible. There is certainly the whiff of artistry and ingenuity throughout. A visceral and visionary read. It effectively and lyrically describes what it might be like to ‘see’ or experience the world in a non ‘neuro-typical’ way. All senses engaged, I was enlightened, illuminated and delighted.
Sile J Mannion is a published poet. She comments: ‘I’m an Irish writer transplanted to Christchurch. When I can, I write and when I can’t, I read.’