Here’s how the story starts: Jasmine’s friend, Bex, wants to write some articles about English literary sites to launch her career in travel journalism. Bex co-opts Jasmine to accompany her to the UK and offers to pay half Jasmine’s fare. Six weeks prior to departure, Bex lands a new job; Jasmine now has a spare ticket. Jasmine asks her mum, Della – who has rarely left her hometown – to go on the trip with her.
Here’s how the story starts: ‘People often assume I chose to go to law school because of what happened to my sister.’ (Jasmine)
Here’s how the story starts: One night, while Della and her daughters are sleeping, seven-year-old Brittany is snatched from her home.
Here’s how the story starts: ‘I was fifteen years old when I ran away from home … I came across Jimmy coming back from the river.’ (Della)
Here’s how the story starts: ‘A long time ago before there had been any death…’ (Cultural story told by Della)
After Story is a book with many beginnings and many stories – stories of the past and the present, of the living and the dead. The novel unfolds over the course of 11 days and across 65,000 years. It lives within time and outside time.
Which Story To Choose?
Multiple themes unfold in Larissa Behrendt’s After Story: love, loss and grief; family violence and intergenerational trauma; the Australian justice system; the English literary canon; and ‘deep listening’ and the wisdom of elders. I’m going to focus on just one strand: Della’s discoveries on her trip with Jasmine.
Discovery #1 – Names and Dates
Unlike university-educated Jasmine, Della ‘wasn’t very good at learning in school’. She had dropped out of formal education by the age of 16 when she gave birth to her first child. But Della has a keen sense of curiosity. Early in their 11-day tour, Jasmine buys Della a notebook so her mother can write down the things she wants to remember.
Della starts to fill the notebook with factual snippets: ‘Great Fire. 1666. Few lives lost’, ‘Charles Dickens – 12 years old. Blacking = shoe polish’, ‘Winchester – very old. Cathedral. 900 years like yew tree’.
On Day 2 of the tour, she jots down: ‘Ye Old Cheshire Cheese public house’. She has learnt that an earlier pub on the site burnt down in the great fire of 1666 – a fact she had recorded the previous day. ‘See, that’s why you write stuff down’, she thinks. ‘Then you can join the dots and see how everything’s connected.’
Discovery #2 – ‘Helping something to grow’
The function of the notebook expands as the tour proceeds. Wandering the grounds of Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle sparks Della’s interest in gardening. The idea of ‘helping something to grow’ appeals to her. She decides that, when she returns to Australia, she will start a garden at her own home even though no-one in her street has a garden ‘except for Aunty Elaine, and since she’d passed away most of her plants seemed to have died’.
Because she is a complete novice, Della purchases ‘a good book for starters’ at the castle’s gift shop. As the tour continues, she dips in and out of the book, learning about seeds and soil and compost, and about air plants and cut-and-come-again plants and companion plants. She begins listing memory prompts at the back of her notebook: ‘Aunty Elaine’s flowers?’, ‘Easy to grow?’, ‘Watering can’, ‘Bucket’.
Throughout the tour, Della takes herself out of buildings and into gardens, from Dean Garnier’s Garden at Winchester Cathedral and the garden at Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton to the hotel garden at her Bath hotel and the Knot Garden at Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon. (‘“knot garden”, not “not garden”’, she writes in her notebook – ‘my own little joke’.)
Although the tour’s focus is literary, Della observes:
If there was one thing I was learning today it wasn’t about books but about how lovely a garden could be. I wondered that I had never thought it until now but I guess that’s what seeing the world is all about – opening your eyes to things you haven’t seen before.
Discovery #3 – Wondering while Wandering
Travelling by bus and on foot offers the chance to reflect. Time and again, Della pauses to wonder:
- seeing the flourishing garden at the bombed ruins of London’s St Dunstan-in-the-East, now wedged between skyscrapers, she wonders about remnant ‘pieces of history’ and then reflects further on the 65,000-plus years over which Aboriginal people have lived in Australia. ‘When you think of it, even things from Shakespeare’s day are all kind of new.’
- walking through Oxford, with its ‘bell towers and church steeples, narrow lanes and gardens, markets and rivers’, Della muses: ‘as soon as you arrived here to study you must have felt you were special and in your own little world’. This thought then prompts her to wonder what it must have been like for Jasmine when she first moved to the city to study. ‘I felt a little ashamed that until that moment I’d never thought much about what a big change and adjustment it must have been for her to go to such a new place like a university … I was more focused on how much I missed her when she left, so I didn’t think about it from any sides other than just mine.’
- visiting Cambridge, with its ‘big buildings and big thoughts’, Della wonders ‘why the British didn’t think they had everything they needed right here in their own country so had to go and claim someone else’s’ and, having done so, why try ‘to erase what was there before. I guess because you think one is superior to the other’. But, if you were ‘really smart’, you’d value Aunty Elaine’s kind of knowledge ‘about plants and medicines and the stars’.
Discovery #4 – Cultural Stories and Practices
‘I’m beginning to understand why you might [travel] now I’ve done it, and can see how much you learn’, thinks Della. But, in truth, it’s a recognition of the importance of what she already knows that is Della’s greatest discovery on her trip.
Prompted by the sights she sees, Della’s memories of cultural stories and practices re-surface. She begins to add another kind of entry to her notebook – snatches of the old cultural stories that have been passed down by Aunty Elaine.
On the final day of the trip, Della and Jasmine visit the Museum of London where Della learns more about the Great Fire of 1666: ‘that fire was an angry one – violent, hot and intense’. Her thoughts continue: ‘Back home, fire was used to keep the land healthy – a cool fire could help clear the undergrowth. I thought again about how Aunty Elaine said fire helped some plants regenerate … I tried to remember all I could about it. There were complex rules about where fire burning should take place … I took a minute to write everything I could remember into my notebook.’
Walking from the museum to the British Library, Jasmine tells Della how much she enjoyed Aunty Elaine’s stories and suggests to her mother, ‘we should write them down’. Della instantly realises: ‘It was that thing when you have already been doing something but until someone puts it into words, you don’t quite realise that it’s what you’ve been thinking.’
I thought of all those bits and pieces I’d been noting down and now it seemed like somehow the spirits had brought it all together and planted this idea that we should record it … I can’t tell you how much I liked the idea.
Discovery #5 – A Tip for Novice Travellers
Finally, on a slightly frivolous note, here’s one last discovery: with an overcrowded suitcase and a constant urge to buy gifts to take home, Della learns how to roll clothes so they take up less packing space – a not inconsequential skill, especially now she’s had a taste of travel and thinks she might enjoy more.
‘I’ve liked the trip’, she tells her sister Kiki, ‘I wouldn’t mind another one.’
Links and Sources
- After Story (2021) by Larissa Behrendt is published by University of Queensland Press.
- You can read more about Larissa Behrendt and her books on her website. As well as novels, Behrendt’s other publications include Indigenous Australia for Dummies which is also available in a children’s edition.
- Gardens mentioned in this post: Vita Sackville-West’s gardens, Sissinghurst Castle; the Dean Garnier Garden, Winchester Cathedral; the garden at Thomas Hardy’s Cottage, Higher Bockhampton; and the Knot Garden, Nash’s House, Stratford-upon-Avon.
- Image credits: The map of Della and Jasmine’s tour is reproduced from After Story (UQP, 2021) and the Sissinghurst Castle Gardens by Len Williams is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. All other images
- All other images are by the author. These photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog. (The blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.)