I want you to imagine one of those endless Brisbane summers of the 1970s, where the sun beat down relentlessly and before there was widespread use of air conditioning. Brisbane is renowned for its sauna like climate, where a great fug of moisture hangs over the city and where being the 1970s, the memory of a world before the metric system still lingers large and so the mercury sits inthe high nineties rather than the thirties. I want you to also imagine a flame haired girl, spending those lazy days day dreaming, as an escape from the drone of the cicadas and the summer heat which continues to beat down relentlessly.
This is the sort of environment that fostered the debut novel by TV presenter Leigh Sales, "Flora's Fancy', and which I am led to believe is the perfect environment to read it in.
The story is straightforward enough. A young girl named Flora Fenwick, who has been orphaned by her parents in a hideous motor accident, lives with her two despicable aunts in a great mansion house and spends most of the novel trying to escape their clutches and their various attempts to kill her so that they can inherit the house.
The story strays into the realm of cliché with pretty predictable and formulaic schemes by the two despicable aunts to bring about Flora's demise and her invariably successful attempts to thwart those schemes. One particular piece late in the novel involves the aunts setting up an elaborate Rube Goldberg type machine which fails in exactly the way that you expect, which if you were a ten year old child would be utterly hilarious. As someone who is decidedly not the target audience, it was still somewhat amusing to see it unfold, in the same way that you might watch an entertainer explain how their puppets are manipulated.
The novel contains the usual kind of tone and meter that you'd expect from a children's novel and the resolution is absolutely predictable, which is perfectly acceptable in a children's novel because you want a satisfying resolution.
What truly sets this novel apart though, is that it is utterly dripping with a sense of place.
One of the problems that seems to befall children in Australia when it comes to literature is that just like so many other facets of culture, Australia has developed a sense of embarrassment about itself. We're happy to read about quaint English villages from an imagined past that could never have been, we will lap up stories from America which speak of optimism and opportunity which was ironically denied to many of the children reading the novels, and we'll even read Canadian stories which spill over with politeness and a need for apology, but when it comes to our own stories we'd rather pretend as though we don't really exist. 'Flora's Fancy' though, positively drips with the awareness that it is an Australian book for Australian children.
The descriptions of the mansion house could have only been written by someone familiar with that kind of architecture to which Queensland lends its eponym. The word choice throughout the novel, which has been carefully selected, paints the picture of those endless summers which only seem to exist in Australia. The novel has a tendency to wax lyrical with descriptions of food and drink but it has a rhythm about it which could have only come about through years of practice, which Sales brings as a journalist and the host of 7.30 on the ABC. The only thing that I found confusing about the novel was the way that Flora refers to her backpack as a 'port'; which I have subsequently found out is a regionalism from south east Queensland and which further serves to add to this sense of place.
I don't know if 'Flora's Fancy' is destined to become an Australian children's classic because that happens through unexplainable forces which are unknown to all but I do know that it could very well be the kind of novel which ironically returns to those endless summers which nurtured the idea and helped it to bloom. The novel is sufficiently open ended enough that it could very easily become the first in a series, as well.
'Flora's Fancy' is published by Collins Publishing and is currently only available in hardback, costs $19.95 and is available at many independent bookstores and major stockists.
Except that all of this is a lie.
'Flora's Fancy' is the brainchild of 7.30's Leigh Sales but does not exist. It has been discussed on the podcast 'Chat 10 Looks 3*' which is hosted by Leigh Sales and fellow partner in crimes against sanity, Annabelle Crabb. It is a pity, really. The idea of this book has been discussed at length many times on the podcast. Maybe the illusion of its existence would make an interesting conceit; with the myth taking off and having a life of its own.