Remember that game called Chinese Whispers – or “Telephone”, as it’s known in the U.S.? You start with a strange-sounding phrase that’s sent by whisper from player to player with the directive at the end to “pass it on”. Sometimes the message emerges loud and clear; other times it’s transformed into a new and surprising set of words.
I thought of that phrase, that murmured pass it on, as I conjured things I could transmit between different characters to create the complex web of A Hundred Small Lessons—from hair color or a fondness for a certain flavor to more complicated ideas like fear and desire. I was interested in unexpected inheritances: the ways a house might press the life of an earlier owner into the experiences of a later one; the ways in which two people who think they’ve never met might actually be linked. And I was interested in networks of coincidences and commonalities that might exist between us all, no matter when or where we live.
A Hundred Small Lessons plaits together the lives of two different families in two different eras who share a common space, a small house just in from the river in Brisbane. There’s Elsie Gormley who, with her husband Clem, has raised twins through the 1940s and fifties. She defines herself entirely as a mother and can imagine no greater gift than that for anyone. But she also spends time with Ida Lewis, her contemporary; a nurse who has remade herself as an artist, who has married a divorced professor, and who is quite happy not to have children. Years later, Clem and the professor discover things that they both have in common—where they work (but not their work), and birds, and billiards, and an image of repose.
Then there are Elsie’s children—her son, Don, to whom Elsie is very close, and her daughter Elaine, who enjoys motherhood less than Elsie does, and can never quite make her peace with that. Elaine can see the other sorts of people she might be—but she can’t quite see how to step into their shoes. Nor can she speak of this with Elsie. It’s to Clem that she describes her disappointments: she can pass her stories on to him instead.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
And finally, there’s Lucy Kiss, who comes to live in Elsie’s house in 2010 when Elsie has moved out. She’s with her husband, Ben, and their one-year-old son, and she’s confronting the kinds of everyday recalibrations required by parenthood, and the potentially larger identity shift of becoming a mother.
Brisbane is Ben’s hometown, and he moves in and out of it with ease, relishing both the chance to leave it when his work sends him to other places as much as the joy of coming home again. But it’s a new landscape for Lucy—a place she hasn’t lived before—as is the landscape of motherhood itself. She experiences Brisbane, and mothering, as a tricky, shifting space, and she looks for clues and signs by which she might orient herself in both. She takes on small domestic rituals—making bread; drinking tea—as if Elsie’s house has suggested them to her. Perhaps the house has. She imagines Elsie coming back to see who’s living in her home now. And perhaps Elsie does. And she imagines talking with Elsie about the similarities and differences in their maternal worlds: she’s looking for comfort, for reassurance that she’s doing just fine. She imagines asking Elsie about mundane things like household appliances or vaccinations, but below that surface she and Elsie might find more complicated common ground—around the different sense of time and place that mothers carry; the things that they gift to their children, sometimes unwittingly; or the foreboding that can fill a mother’s mind.
All these exchanges—the stories these women and men tell each other—create the threads that draw the characters together. There are gaps and elisions and misunderstandings; there are messages that don’t quite get through. But there are points of serendipitous connection as well, of understanding and kindness, of relief.
And in thinking about these things that might connect us, and the things we’d like to leave for one another, to have passed on or passed down somehow, I realized that stories are one clear means by which we can do all of this—connect and transmit—no matter who or where we are.
This is something that distinguishes us as humans: we assemble narratives about our lives that we can then share with one another. We tell each other what’s happening to us—now; right now—as easily as we talk about what has happened or what might happen, our pasts or our futures. We talk about things we remember, imagine, regret or desire. We even try out different endings and personae as we go.
That famous Joan Didion quote—“we tell ourselves stories in order to live”—is an absolute truth. Our stories are our lives—they make us live—and we use them to pass on versions of ourselves to other people. We reflect and refract ourselves and each other as we do, working out the things we have in common and the ways we stand apart.
We use them to connect.
Inheritance isn’t just about genetics or epigenetics—hair color or a hunger for something in particular. We transmit and inherit things through the anecdotes we share—even from our most mundane of days.
It’s this stuff of life, these connections, that the characters in A Hundred Small Lessons have in common and that we have in common with them. In fact, one of the loveliest things about the book finding its way into the world has been to hear the stories that it sparks for other people—the parts of themselves that they find tucked into its pages and its moments, no matter how far they live from Brisbane. That feels like a kind of a gift.
After all, the more we share and listen to each other’s stories, the richer all our worlds can grow to be—no matter if we hear them as strange-sounding or strangely familiar. Through the, we can inherit and inhabit other lives. And through them, we pass on both the smallest and most surprising of our experiences and ourselves.
Featured image: Elsa Jenna