Launch of Telltale 3pm July 16 2022 by Andy Griffiths
at Bookish 1/358 Hargreaves Street, Bendigo
‘I was confined, locked into my library, tracing my heartbeats from way, way back.’
In Telltale, Carmel seizes on the enforced isolation of the pandemic to re-read a rich dispensary of books from her past. A rule she sets herself is that she can consult only the books in her house, even if some, such as the much-loved Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, appear to be stubbornly elusive. Her library is comprehensive, and each book chosen - or that cannot be refused - enables an opening, a connection to people, time, place, myth, image, and the experience of a writing life. From her father’s bomb shelter to her mother’s raspberry jam, from a lost Georgian public library with ‘narrow little streets of books’ to the memory of crossing by bridge the turbulent waters of the Tamar River, to a revelatory picnic at Tasmania’s Cataract Gorge in 1945, this is the most intimate of memoirs.
It is one that never shies from the horrors of world history, the treatment of First Nations People, or the literary misrepresentations of the past.
Cover image by Lorena Carrington
Short Extract from Telltale
I started writing Telltale at the end of May 2020, during lockdown. Almost every day thereafter, until the end of December, even on Christmas Day, the first thing I did on waking was write this text. I had always thought I wouldn’t write a memoir, but I soon realised Telltale was going to be a long project, something like a memoir. Every biography, autobiography, memoir, is only one way of looking at the material of a life. Memory is not usually chronological, so I feel that the account of memory does not always need to be chronological either. In my case I have begun by concentrating on the importance of books and reading across my whole existence, and have naturally been led to give some accounts of many other things. The narrative I offer here is but one trajectory of life as I have known it. People sometimes talk about the lens through which a writer views the world that is being offered to a reader – in this case my principal lens is formed from the books I have read.
I am always wary of metaphor, and therefore I am astonished that in Telltale I am so insistent on the metaphor of the bridge, with the idea of crossing from one place to another, of seeking paradise by crossing troubled waters, of being afraid that the bridge will not hold. All I can say is that in the pandemic mood of May when I began to write Telltale, the image of myself as a frightened child of nearly five on the King’s Bridge in Launceston presented itself to me, and refused to go away. I gave in to it, and soon found that the idea of bridges – the motif of the bridge, if you like – really meant a great deal to me, occupying a pathway to meaning. As soon as I realised this, I searched my bookshelves for one of my favourite novels, one that I had not read for many years. This was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. It hovered in my mind as a thin grey book, nondescript in appearance, a cheap wartime production with no lettering on the spine. A kind of mouse of an object. Search as I would, it was nowhere to be found. I became obsessed.
Carmel in 1947
Comments on Telltale
Maria Takolander: "Once upon a time, a writer wandered into a forest of books and memories to examine their uncanny traces on her imagination and understanding. She returned with stories of a gothic and lyrical beauty, with histories of war and hatred and racism and genocide, with foretellings of the COVID-19 plague and Black Lives Matter, with a reminder of how ‘the spectres of the past gather to form the terrors of the present’. Carmel Bird, our antipodean Angela Carter, has always shown us that fairytales disguise tales of horror. This new memoir sheds fresh light on Bird’s unique and haunting body of work as well as on our past and present as a nation, showing us how to confront fear with fearlessness, not to mention style and power."
Andy Griffiths: “More than a memoir, Telltale is a fascinating tapestry of fact, fiction, dream and myth in which Carmel Bird invites us to pay attention to the many intimate and often hidden connections between the books we read and the lives we lead.”
Bruce Pascoe: “A book about books that dreams you through a library of life.”
Michael McGirr: "I have so loved this book! It walks us through the encounters of a lifetime, always with a delightful eye for stranger connections and elusive memories. It is testimony to a life of great intellectual generosity and human compassion. It is irresistible."
Debra Adelaide: “Telltale is endlessly fascinating, original, full of insight, playful, attentive to language and, in many ways, a beautiful and moving history of Tasmania, the place where it all began for this extraordinary author. ”
Hilary McPhee: “A rare thing, an ingenious memoir."
Review of Telltale
Reviewer: Richard Krause
What is fascinating about Carmel Bird’s Telltale is how interspersed with a story of childhood are such harrowing historical events, specifically, the disturbing history of Australia, a country singled out for the most unusual colonizing. It is a childhood rich with all the benefits of the written word, with art and culture, but with an abiding mindfulness of the world outside, of the convict heritage and the horror towards the First Nation people, responding to Evelyn Temple Emmett’s romanticized notion of “pioneers” and “settlers.” All of this is so seamlessly handled to almost be beyond reproach, so the reader doesn’t always realize when he is drifting out of a childhood reminiscence into a scenario of horror, from an outing at King’s Bridge to the treatment of the indigenous population, or to the Dresden and Tokyo bombings. The deftness of the transition is remarkable. The way light is shed on the history makes any argument against the horrors catalogued almost meaningless.
For when everything is couched in the outing of a picnic, in a family life that securely and lovingly protects a young child, the horror that can intrude at any moment demonstrates the startling reality that for so many life was no picnic, but a history of cruelty, neglect, and pain. The reminiscences couched in such innocence confer a kind of immunity on the talebearer for pointing out such horrors, but after all this is a book titled Telltale, a working example of Donne’s clod not being washed away without the continent, the country, the lives of the rest of us being the less.
Here is a curious amalgam of the personal and public, an interpenetrating stream of consciousness guided by a steady, brave look at the past. The author’s bookshelves offer “doorways into the murky labyrinths of Tasmanian truths,” “cracks in the rock face of respectability.” Threading the narrative is the search for the lost copy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey and the bridges, birds, fairy tales, the lifetime of books, cobbling their overusage together, noticing their foxing, the continuing and implicit stain on what is expressed. There is something unjaundiced about such a clearsighted reconstruction, a wondrous interposed simultaneity of time, dipping back and forward, slipping into and out of the horror and the halcyon periods, weaving past and present, and wisely at the same time reserving judgement so the gavel comes down even more powerfully for not having to. This book curiously supersedes critical judgement because its vision is so unforced that everything is effortlessly laid out. Its triumph is that fingers are not pointed, but the natural thrust of the work holds all accountable. What is written is such an unusual history that it cannot be denied. After all, it is initially through a child’s eyes. The narration is a national resource that I suspect the author’s prior books have led up to, a culmination of past writing that has crystallized in this memoir.
The work sorts itself out and by its very nature, by the recreation of details that point their own fingers, establishes judgement on their own terms. Because of Telltale, judgements will be more easily made. The horrors of the history will be clearer, and I imagine more easily evaluated and accepted for review. By cleverly concentrating on a childhood, readers will be seduced who will not be entirely aware how fraught what has been done is, or the license that is being taken with the memoir, exposing such a revealing history of Tasmania, Australia, and the world, almost without seeming to, that it seeps into consciousness before many readers admit what is happening.
Carmel Bird is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her first collection of short stories appeared in 1976. Since then she has published novels, essays, anthologies, children's books and also manuals on how to write.
2019 is the twenty-second anniversary of this website. The site gives access to a great deal of material, which can be reached here: click for link to the old website