Telltale is composed of two different kinds of narrative. One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface? Will the metaphors crumble into useless dust? One thread speaks of books read and sometimes written. And also of things that happened in my life. The other speaks of a journey of the heart, a pilgrimage through the patchy history of the world, becoming a poetic thread that runs through the whole narrative.
In 2020, the coronavirus suddenly and dramatically took over our lives. It was an unsettling and scary time (and it still is, but most of us seem to be living with the grim figures now instead of obsessing nightly). Carmel Bird used the enforced isolation as a gift. She writes that ‘confined to my library in what seems to be a strange and dreamlike way’, she set out to explore the world of books on her shelves, to revisit the pages she turned in childhood, to trace the patterns and recurrences in her art and life.
The house is my labyrinth, but I am not looking for the way out. I am looking for the way in, the way in to myself. One result of the constrictions is the firing of a special type of joy and energy. I am mining and I am weaving and I am brewing.
Books such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Stories from Uncle Remus and Cole’s Funny Picture Book launch the writer on a journey of discovery that leads far and wide both in literature and her own life. But as she reminds the reader, memory is not usually chronological and so this memoir can skip from sun-drenched family picnics to WWII concentration camps to the dark history of genocide and erasure that shadowed her birthplace, Tasmania.
Like all of Carmel Bird’s work, Telltale is highly original. It’s stylish, playful and occasionally very moving. She herself uses the metaphor of a tapestry, and if at times I found it hard to follow her thread (“Yes, but where is this going?”), inevitably there was the aha! moment, when the pattern – subtle, intriguing and unique – emerged satisfyingly from the background. It’s a book to read slowly, and to re-read.