Orr, Stephen. Sincerely, Ethel Malley. Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2021. RRP: $34.95, 450pp, ISBN: 9781743058084.
With Sincerely, Ethel Malley, Stephen Orr takes the bones of the ‘Ern Malley’ Australian literary scandal and entwines reality with make-believe to create a tale that tests our expectations of fiction. Set in 1943–44, it’s a novel in which truth is wobblier than a jelly trifle, down to the Acknowledgements, with stories within stories to rival Ian McEwan’s Atonement. It’s also an absorbing read, with a swag of complex, relatable, imperfect characters that shimmer against the pinched wartime backdrops of Adelaide city and suburban Sydney.
In some ways, the less one knows about the Ern Malley hoax before embarking on this novel, the better for one’s sanity. But briefly, in 1944, the avant-garde Adelaide literary journal Angry Penguins published a suite of poems by an unknown returned soldier called Ern Malley1. The poems were said to have been found by Ern’s sister Ethel after Ern’s early death. It later emerged that co-publisher Max Harris, a passionately modernist twenty-three-year-old university student and poet, had been pranked, two traditionalist poets boasting of having dashed off the poems, drawing from a random collection of sources. But while Ern and Ethel were fabrications, the poems were not, and they went on to garner international attention (unlike the ‘serious’ poetry of their authors). They also got Max Harris a conviction for publishing ‘indecent advertisements’ for which he was fined five pounds2. In 1944, one couldn’t mention ‘boult upright’ body parts and expect to get away with it3.
Throughout the novel, Orr dances with the reader around the notions of authorship, truth and authenticity. When evidence mounts that ‘Ern Malley’ is a fraud, Ethel fumes indignantly to Harris: ‘If there was no Ern, there was no Ethel. […] No Ethel, no Dalmar Street, Sydney, Australia … we may as well say the whole thing’s made up!’ (164–165). In an interview, Orr speaks of the contract between authors and readers—and the author’s compulsion to break it.
When writers shift ground, for various reasons, beneath the readers’ feet, they don’t take so well to it. But every writer wants to break that contract in a way; there’s that slight sense of mischief we have about not wanting to just go along and be safe. And one of the things I was concerned about is that fiction is getting quite safe now. (Nichols)
In 2003, Peter Carey brought the spirit of Ern to life in My Life as a Fake. Orr was drawn instead to the character of Ethel, her mental state and what was motivating her. ‘I was really attracted to the idea of sending her to go and stay with Max,’ he says, ‘and for a relationship between [them] to develop and seeing what would come from that’ (Nichols). The ensuing novel encompasses Ethel’s friendship with Max Harris and the court case following the poems’ publication. Two chapters set in 1981, by other narrators, bookend the story; the rest is told by Ethel, in first person, in a voice sometimes self-effacing, sometimes brutish, alight with wartime vernacular and wry humour. Orr builds Ethel into a gloriously brave, humble, slippery, disorderly, often dislikeable character. One simultaneously cheers and cringes for her as she rips through the lacework of some of Adelaide’s most venerable institutions, her behaviour growing increasingly erratic and outrageous in her fierce defence of not only her brother’s work but also his existence.
Ethel describes a tough upbringing for herself and little ‘Pissy-pants Ern’ (13). But curious gaps emerge in her understanding, especially of Ern’s adult life, such as the ongoing question of where he served in the war. When challenged, she attributes these gaps to his general surliness toward her. All is explained—heartbreakingly—in the novel’s closing passages. Throughout, only a thin membrane separates Ethel’s recollections about her brother and their ramshackle lives together from what is proffered by Ethel as a factual account of events. Dialogue with Ern is not set apart by quotation marks, as is dialogue elsewhere; she is wont to state a fact and follow it with an ‘I guess’—or similar—in parentheses; her recollections interrupt and mingle with her flow of thought. At times, Ern almost bodily interposes himself into Ethel’s narrative, as when she first shows her humble Croydon home to Max:
My brother, sitting a few yards away in a canvas chair, looking at us. Who the hell’s this, Eth?
I could’ve told him. The man who’s published your poems, Ern. But even then he mightn’ta been impressed, mighta said something like, Bit full of himself, isn’t he?
No, Ern, he’s the nicest man.
What, you fancy him, Eth? Grinning.
But the chair was empty, and had been for some time. (249)
From time to time, Ethel needs to convince herself of her ability to distinguish truth from fantasy, in one instance writing: ‘I still remember the night. Yes, I do. I remember it. I remember it! ’ (194)
In the background, Orr portrays the war’s impact at home in Australia with sensitivity, the novel encompassing the hostility toward males of fighting age who didn’t—or couldn’t—join up; the missing loved ones or, like her friend Peggy’s suicidal son, those who weren’t the same when they’d returned; the resilient women keeping families afloat; and the spirit of community, whereby people quietly kept an eye on one another. In creating this world, Orr draws on a broad sensory palate. One can hear the clatter of trams; can smell the newly turned trenches on Adelaide University’s lawns and the old coats in the Legacy shop where Ethel and Peggy volunteer.
The court trial against Harris, as recounted in the novel, casts a beam of light on how we as a society view art, specifically art that challenges the norm. Orr says: ‘As with the Dobell [Archibald Prize] case in Sydney about the same time, [the Ern Malley case] set some precedents about what we accept with freedom of speech today. So, I am hoping [this novel] has some contemporary resonance’ (Matilda Bookshop). There is no doubt that it does.
1 There was much fanfare, with a young Sidney Nolan providing the cover art.
2 Court transcript of the trial of Max Harris: http://jacketmagazine.com/17/trial-harris.html.
3 The lines, referenced several times in the novel, are: ‘Only a part of me shall triumph in this
(I am not Pericles) // Though I have your silken eyes to kiss // And maiden-knees // Part of me remains, wench, Boult-upright // The rest of me drops off into the night.’ At: http://jacketmagazine.com/17/ern-poems.html#Heading117.
Nichols, Claire. ‘The Book Show: “In this moment, I had to be there”—Patricia Lockwood on writing about the life and death of a child’, May 31, 2021, ABC. Sourced at: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-book-show/patricia-lockwood-stephen-orr/13361596.
Matilda Bookshop. ‘Matilda Readings: Stephen Orr ‘Sincerely, Ethel Malley’. May 21, 2021, Vimeo. Sourced at: https://vimeo.com/553615590.
Jen Banyard is the author of four novels for young readers (published by Fremantle Press) and numerous stories. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia.