2000, 271 p
Ruth Cracknell was a much-loved Australian actor- sharp, eloquent, funny, rather patrician in an ‘older woman’ sort of way. Although, of course, her character Maggie Beare in ‘Mother and Son’ (where she plays the devious elderly mother whose hapless adult son returns to live with her) was none of these things!
I had to keep flicking to her picture at the back of the book to remind me that she was the author, because her celebrity is almost inconsequential to this story. It’s not so much Ruth Cracknell here, but Mrs. Ruth Phillips, mourning the death of her husband Eric. It’s as woman and widow, mother and grandmother that we meet her, not as a ‘star’.
This is a beautifully constructed memoir. The preface starts with Eric’s funeral, written in italicized third person, as if she is watching herself going through the ritual. She then moves back in time to their arrival in Venice for a holiday together and the pace of the narrative moves to a slow sort of travelogue, overshadowed by the certain knowledge that death is hovering over them like an unseen, malevolent force. This sense of foreboding permeates the book, even when Eric is finally well enough to fly home to Melbourne where cancer is diagnosed. The title is well chosen: I kept thinking of Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’, but Eric does not die there. He recovers sufficiently to be medi-evacuated back to Australia, has two precious trips back to the family home for Sunday lunch, and some weeks later dies of the cancer, not the bleeding that initially threatened his life. And so, by the end of the book, we return to the funeral and we, too, grieve.
While waiting in Venice for him to recover sufficiently for the trip home, the tourists leave as the summer season ends, the deeper water laps at the floor of her ground floor flat, and Ruth becomes aware of the sheer inconvenience of living (as distinct from visiting) Venice. That holiday, so eagerly anticipated, so richly enjoyed for the first few days becomes instead a stark, lonely, bewildering exile.
This is, instead, a journey from Venice, not to it, and in the weeks they have together, they fall in love again- a different sort of love, suffused with the knowledge that it is all they have left. They truly do live “in the moment”: the sharing of a blood orange is a sensuous joy, and she sees and loves anew the stripped down, solid core of the man she has been married to for over 40 years.
It was interesting to read this book after recently finishing Caroline Jones’ book about her father’s death. This is a much more grounded, sane and adult book, and one that gives much more comfort. It is beautifully written and constructed, and it shares the poise, groundedness and authenticity of its author.