Almanac Book Review – Siren’s Call: Two in one

 

 

by Ken Haley

 

Some of our most powerful reading remembrances stem from books that don’t confine themselves to one subject in particular but are literally about one thing and another.

 

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores the experience of childhood and the lessons of growing up; it also concerns race relations in a growing nation.

 

Similarly, Rebecca West’s masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is both a historical survey (of Yugoslavia just before the Second World War) and an exotic travel tale.

 

Each is turned into a stronger product for being wrapped up, as it were, with double twining. A fresh example is Yvette Wroby’s debut book which, right from the Foreword title ‘A Double Life’, advertises its nature as a dual memoir.

 

Wroby has two stories to tell, each connected to the other by an indestructible thread of love: the story of her mother’s terminal illness and its effect on her loving family; and the chronicle of a lifelong devotion to St Kilda Football Club.

 

A key to understanding the strength of both affiliations is to recognise that “club” is far too weak a term for what is really a second family (and Wroby acknowledges throughout her book that the Saints are family to her in so many ways).

 

In this 313-page account of fandom and frailty, she introduces us to so many members of her second family that at times it feels as if we’re in the midst of one of Tolstoy’s more populous homesteads.

 

Often it is the cameo appearances that provide the most durable impressions, such as Saints supporter Richard, who turns out to be a deep, if laconic philosopher, pointing out that “there are two types of family – the biological and the logical”.

 

The logic, it’s worth noting, lies in the comfort provided by friends and acquaintances especially in times when close family are under strain, as it must be when your nearest and dearest – in Wroby’s case her 84-year-old mother, Elfrieda (Elfie), diagnosed with cancer – is dying.

 

That comfort is all the greater where a sports club is involved, because there is a focus of attention, renewed with every weekly match in a season of competition, that will relieve the otherwise constant stress on the daughter (who, we learn along the way, is also a mother, grandmother, friend of a friend in particular need, an artist and a cook).

 

As a title, Siren’s Call works a treat since it keeps both her mum Elfie’s dying and her beloved Sainters’ fortunes perpetually in view.

 

As each subject is fully endowed with emotional potential, Wroby does well to alternate her attendance at every game of the 2015 season with her mother’s treatment and deteriorating health.

 

In a less talented writer’s hands, this could be a depressing combination. After all, you know from the first page that Elfie isn’t going to be alive when you reach the last; and that a season in which the Saints end up with six wins and a draw isn’t going to be jam-packed with highlights by way of buoyant contrast.

 

Yet this is a work of affirmation, and there are a number of reasons that make it so. First, Elfie herself is the epitome of survivorship. In Chapter 5 it comes as a revelation – but then you realise it shouldn’t – that she once wrote a book herself, of how she and her sister survived the separations and terrors of life as Jews in wartime Europe.

 

The second reason this book will leave you feeling upbeat is a deliberate device – the placement of what Wroby calls ‘Saintly spotlights’ honouring team tragics she’s met over the years who have resonated deeply with her.

 

Her portrait of the first of these – Kenny Whiffin – is finely drawn, and put me in mind of my late father, not only because Whiffin lived in East Bentleigh, not far from where I grew up, but because, like Dad, he’d seen the light and converted to the red, white and black after a youth misspent barracking for the Blues.

 

From the earliest pages I knew that I was going to break up when Elfie inevitably died, but Wroby’s account of Whiffin’s own dual families’ final respects being paid at his bedside – and then of his passing that very night – followed by her mentioning the thousand-plus attendance at his funeral brought unexpected tears to my eyes.

 

So deftly is her narrative constructed that, before too much time is spent wondering how one can be so moved by a stranger introduced and explained in comparatively few pages, the reader is transported fully into an evocation of the joy and warm security of a childhood filled with Jewish traditions.

 

All this might not seem extraordinary, but Wroby’s ability to switch seamlessly from the recollection of a participant to the role of observer is something rare, as she writes: “It seems, on reflection, that we had the childhood (Aunt) Serry and Mum had been deprived of.”

 

The third reason this book – which is so much about the demise of hope – does not leave the reader downcast is the author’s use of humour.

 

A couple of touches will suffice to give the flavour that leavens the book’s grimmer truths. Upon discovering that she has chosen to stay at the same Gold Coast hotel where the Saints players themselves are guests, it seems one of her heroes gets into the elevator at every stop, prompting Wroby to remark: “I am feeling so overjoyed and wonder if I should just ride the lifts for the rest of the evening!”

 

A true writer’s gift for understatement is twinned with self-deprecating humour in this description from a pre-season game at Docklands: “I sing the song out loud; we rarely sing at the end anymore.”

 

Sometimes happiness is created in the simplest of ways: the most vivid of these has to be when Saints recruit Paddy McCartin teaches Wroby how to kick a drop punt.

 

By rights, no work dealing with some of life’s heaviest themes should give its readers so much smile time, but then no other response is reasonable when you think about Michael, a member of the Launceston Saints supporters’ group, who checked himself out of a Melbourne hospital in September 1966 – where he was to undergo an operation – and checked himself ‘into’ St Kilda’s victorious Grand Final.

 

And there’s something really charming in the tale of Geoff Jones, a Saints player in the luckless 1950s who was playing at Junction Oval one day when he came down with a bung knee. When no trainers turned up to help him, his fiancée (now his wife, who tells the story) jumped the fence and rendered him first aid herself.

 

Unconscious humour also exists, if more rarely, such as when the coach in a women’s footy premiership match calls out to the players: “Man up, man up!”

 

No account of season 2015 would be complete without reference to the Adam Goodes controversy, and it is to Wroby’s credit that she urges a more considered position and advocates dealing with kneejerk jeerers “one boo at a time”.

 

The way she deals with the fight against motor neurone disease is also from the heart, but more artful on the page, as she brings together the history of baseballer Lou Gehrig, rugby great Joost van der Westhuizen and Neale Daniher.

 

Siren’s Call ends, as we readers knew it must, with Elfie’s passing, at 85 – the same age as my own mother was when she died two years previous. It is extremely affecting to read of Serry, her “big sister”, assuring her from the vantage point of her 91 years, and with her own health faltering, that “it’s OK, she can go, she doesn’t have to suffer anymore”.

 

But only those who have lost a cherished parent will fully relate to Wroby’s self-observation while a new season looms – busy as ever, with her second family’s hopes again on the rise – but a season unlike any other, because it lacks her beloved mum’s voice and face and touch, except in memory: “The space in my heart occupied by my mother is still full. Sad and full.”

 

After that it hardly needs adding, but – just so no one’s left in doubt – this is a memoir from the heart, for anybody with one.

 

Purchase Siren’s Call here

 

Read John Butler’s review of Siren’s Call:

Book Review: Siren’s Call by Yvette Wroby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Yvette Wroby says:

    This is a beautiful review. Thanks so much Ken. Very honoured.

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