Changing Country

All Good Things Sarah Turnbull- a review

 I’ve almost finished reading All Good Things at the moment, by Sarah Turnbull. She’s also the author of Almost French, which I read at uni (almost 20 years ago) where, as a late twenty-something Australian woman, she moves to Paris and describes her experience of trying to adapt and live alongside “les Parisiens”. When I discovered she had a new book, I resolved to re-read Almost French and remind myself of her experiences and her writing style, but I was caught by surprise when All Good Things popped up in the Sony reader store on special, and I was too impatient to go and source a copy of her earlier work first.

All Good Things has taken me a long time to read. As with everything nowadays, some of that can be blamed on situational factors (too tired, too busy, the kids, conflicting electronic demands (ie too much time on the internet) but I can’t help but feel that for a really compelling read I’d put these things aside. I didn’t really know what to expect of the book, I knew that Sarah and her French husband leave Paris to move to Tahiti and that was it. If I’d thought about it, I suppose I’d have realised that a personal memoir of life on Mo’orea was probably not going to be particularly fast-paced.

 But overall I’ve enjoyed reading it. There are several aspects of her story that I was able to identify with- her experience of Polynesia, her journey to becoming a mother, even her scuba-diving adventures are all things I can relate to although perhaps in rather different ways to her.

 However there are two things that really appeal to me. The first is her writing style. Much of what I’ve read over the last few years has been, quite frankly, trash. Predictable, formulaic, albeit page-turning chick-lit. In some ways I’m a bit of a literary wannabe. I like to appreciate good writing, I enjoy thinking about themes and imagery and all that stuff, but I don’t want to have to think too hard about it. I want it to be there for me to appreciate without having to expend too much mental energy. And All Good Things allows me just that. Sarah Turnbull writes beautifully. Admittedly her subject matter (mostly the history and natural environment of Tahiti) lends itself to vibrant prose and imagery but her descriptive passages are so… vivid (fortunately she has a far broader vocabulary than mine) and her command of adjectives (although the excerpt below isn’t actually great example of adjectives per se) is astounding.

“Waves pounded the reef, sending white caps scudding across the lagoon and vibrations travelling through the air. Ferns shimmied and shook, coconut palms tossed their heads like impatient ponies, the rubbery papaya tree arched acrobatically. When the rain fell the power of it was thrilling. Water rolled down our iron roof, falling over the eaves in fat glass ropes that glittered under the bright garden lights. The percussive din was so load we had to shout to be heard.”

My English teacher, Mrs Wade, would have been in heaven with all this imagery, albeit a rather frustrated one due my inability to understand the difference between a simile and a metaphor.

While reading passages such as this and in particular her descriptions of her lagoon and ocean forays (swimming and scuba diving), I often wondered how Sarah translated her observations to paper. Did she take notes as she was pottering around the island (surely she must have)? Sitting on a beach with a notebook I can easily imagine, but scribbling notes straight after a scuba dive, all sandy and salty and dripping water on the paper? Did she ponder for hours searching for the perfect adjective or did they all just pop into her head? (Actually an early passage describing some of the writing drills she attempted to overcome her writer’s block would suggest there wasn’t a lot of popping. Nevertheless, I was impressed!)

The other angle that seems particularly pertinent to my own experience is her perspective on moving countries. She describes perfectly (I cannot find the passage at this point- annoying e-reader) how she felt on a brief visit to Australia after some time living in France, how she somehow expected everything to be the same and felt quite indignant that, in her absence, people had dared to move on. I clearly remember having the same feelings during my first trip back to England after we had emigrated to Australia. It was 4 years before we returned which, in anyone’s book, is quite a long time, but in the crucial years of adolescence, may as well be a lifetime. I remember naïvely expecting the comfortable niche I’d left as a 12 year old to be there when I returned at 16 and all my friends just sitting around missing me, as I had missed them since I’d left. Realising they hadn’t been doing that at all and that my niche had been solidly filled in for some time generated such feelings of sadness and loss that I found my visit really difficult in some ways. (Actually it was also exactly what I needed to realise where home really was now and get on with life instead of wallowing in sentimental thoughts of where I’d be now if we hadn’t moved).

Of course, with our imminent move to NZ, this theme becomes relevant again. At the end of the book, Sarah moves back to Australia with her husband and son, and in the final few chapters she describes the physical steps that contribute to such a life-change:

“Changing country requires commitment and energy. Finding or starting work, making friends, developing new rituals, locating favourite restaurants and pastimes- the process of settling in, or “blending in”, as my mother used to say, takes time and energy. Finally, if you’ve been diligent and your efforts prove fruitful, you end up with precisely what you left behind: routines and a regular life.”

As an adult, fortunately, these steps are easier. Not just because they are conscious but because you feel more in control of them than when you are dumped in a foreign country at the age of 12. The fact that you’re the one choosing to move in the first place probably has a lot to do with it as well. So does the fact that you feel much more confident in who you are and all these new discoveries are accessories to your life rather than the definition of it.

So I’m sorry it took me so long to get through the book. Whilst I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that I wasn’t compelled to read it faster, I think the fault was largely mine rather than the author’s. I’d be keen to go back and visit Almost French again. It did spend many years sitting on my bookshelf, only to be discarded in a fit of de-cluttering. But hey, that’s what a library is for, right?

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