Libby Angel has written a vivid and vibrant debut novel about the influence of family, the magic of storytelling and a mother–daughter relationship unlike any other.
In the mundane streets of suburban Adelaide, young Loretta Maartje Lord has always lived in the shadow of her brilliant yet unconventional mother, Leda. Sometimes warm and vivacious and at other times cool and cruel, she represents Loretta’s greatest influence, for better or for worse.
Told through Loretta’s eyes, The Trapeze Act weaves together stories of her mother’s former life in the circus, her father’s bizarre dealings as the town lawyer and Leda’s own eccentric childhood.
Read an extract from this sparkling and surprising novel below.
IT WAS Saturday afternoon in the peak of summer in the driest year for a century in the hottest town in the hottest state in the country. The birds panted and did not sing. My mother, overflowing with child, rested her shandy on the handbasin and wedged herself into a cold bath. My brother, Kingston, then two years old, was wreaking havoc elsewhere in the house, pulling curtains down, ripping doors off cupboards. Destruction was his vocation.
When the time was right, my mother rolled into the green Volvo and drove herself to hospital, dropping off my brother at a nearby childcare centre on the way. (The staff were never pleased to see him, but my father was always punctual with the bills.)
I debuted through the flesh curtains of life into an air-conditioned 1960s cream-brick hospital, right across the road from a racetrack where, from his tower, a caller broadcasted an unpunctuated commentary across the suburbs, his voice penetrating even the double-glazed windows of the labour ward.
Down at the track, rows of heads in hats turned and watched through binoculars as nine horses bolted out of the starting gates and thundered around the bends. My father was among them, his money on a chestnut mare called Rapid Ruth. Minutes later, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered as manes and tails streamed across the finish line.
My father was a winner. While he stood in line to collect his prize, an announcement came over the PA: Mr Gilbert Lord, please make your way to the maternity hospital on the eastern side of the track. Gilbert Lord, your wife is in labour.
There was mirth among the punters, their faces florid from an afternoon of drinking in the sun.
Gilbert jostled his way through an obstacle course of eskies, travel rugs and aluminium fold-up chairs to the exit gate. By the time he reached the hospital, I had emerged.
My brother Kingston was named even before his feet slipped out of the womb. His name belonged to him, my mother said, as clearly as if it were tattooed across his forehead.
Two years later, I lay in my cot for weeks, an anonymous arrangement of tender flesh and soft bones. I could have been anybody. On my birth certificate the line where my name was to appear remained as blank as a game of hangman just begun.
I’m not naming any child of mine after English royalty, my mother objected, when my father suggested Victoria.
I have to at least be able to pronounce it, my father said, after my mother presented him with her shortlist of Dutch names. To him, the rolls and grunts of my mother’s native tongue sounded as if the speaker were coughing up something sinister. Whenever he tried to pronounce the words, he lost control of his mouth, letting forth a spray of spittle. He worried he would swallow his tongue. He preferred the lyricism of Italian or even French (but whatever his relation to the French way back when, he did not trust socialists).
Agata? my mother ventured, picking me up from the cot.
God, no! my father objected as he rushed past the bedroom, down the hallway and out the door, always on his way somewhere else.
Then one day, when he returned home from work, my mother vetted the idea that perhaps I didn’t need a name at all. Why not a number? Fifty-seven, say.
He took the bait: I will not condemn any child of mine to a life of ridicule and the provocation of confusion at every turn, he said.
Well, it’s better than Millicent, my mother smirked; that really would be cruel.
Who are you, who are you, who are you? she demanded of me, her baby, as I screamed myself blue in the dark.
Neighbours and local shopkeepers came to know me as Baby No Name, as if I was a generic brand of baked beans on a supermarket shelf.
My mother believed a name could never be bestowed on a baby, merely read through the infant’s features, expressions and character. A child comes into this world knowing who it is, waiting to be recognised, she maintained.
She would wait then, until I revealed to her my true nature.
Assigning any of my grandparents’ names was out of the question, the names too raw in my parents’ minds, triggers of traumas better laid rest a few more generations. And so they trawled ever further back through the bloodlines.
Until, at last, they discovered who I was.
The shoulders, my mother said, they are Maartje May’s—it is her!
The smile, my father said, staking his claim—it belongs to the girl in the photograph, my great-great-grandmother What’s-her-name.
As evidence he exhumed from the detritus under their bed the one and only family photograph in his possession, an early studio portrait of a smiling child in a white dress with button-up boots, her hair tied back in a bow twice the size of her head, and holding, one in each hand, a stick and a hoop, probably studio props. On the back of the photograph was written, Henrietta (Ettie) 1842.
My mother could not deny the likeness, the uncanniness of the single dimple in the left cheek. Okay, she agreed, we will call her Ettie, short for Loretta.
Having mostly won his case, my father stashed the photograph back under the bed. He had kept it only because he would have felt guilty throwing it away.
I come from a long line of warriors and explorers. My ancestors rode elephants and conquered deserts, seas and skies. Some of them, like my mother, could fly.
Even if we are not awake to them, our forebears possess us. Generations exist in our blood as if we had swallowed them. Loretta Maartje Lord: this is who I am and why I have come. My name is an incantation, a summons to the dead, and I am their torchbearer, the executor of their triumphs and grievances.
I planned, for many years, to dump my inheritance—like an old mattress on the side of the road, surreptitiously, one dark night, as my mother used to say. I thought about changing my name. I will no longer be beholden to my ancestors, however illustrious, I vowed to myself, or mired in stories of ages past. Enough of this ephemera, those traces of the long dead—hand-drawn maps, photographs, journals written in looping hands—all of it can go in the bin. Genealogy is for amateurs! Nostalgia makes me sick, I said, and history makes me weep.
But my mother was more tenacious than any of that.
AS SOON as I enter the hall on the first evening, she is there, sitting beside me, whispering in my ear: You spend your entire childhood complaining that nobody listens to you and now you want to sit here in silence for two weeks?
There are three stages to the practice, the teacher explains. The first is abstention: from killing, stealing, speaking falsehoods and sexual activity.
That all sounds very repressed, my mother says.
I ignore her.
The second stage is to focus on the breath.
I think your main concern here will be boredom, says my mother.
The third, of course, the teacher continues, is meditation: the observation of our thoughts, feelings and sensations, without reaction.
You do have a tendency to overreact, my mother says.
The teacher expounds upon the challenging nature of the practice. It’s not a holiday or an escape from the travails of life, she warns. It’s not an entertainment of any kind. It’s not a treatment or a cure for mental or physical illness.
That’s self-evident, my mother says. Just look around.
In time, if we work hard and earnestly, the method liberates us from suffering and can lead towards purification and enlightenment.
Is that all, my mother scoffs.
Shhh! I hiss.
The teacher carries on, unmoved: Only when we have freed ourselves from distractions can we observe reality as it really is.
Who are these people to talk about reality? says my mother.
In the interest of limiting distractions, the teacher reminds us, men and women will be segregated; starting tomorrow, you will eat, sleep and practice at different times.
That’s a very heteronormative approach to the question of distraction, my mother says.
Exercise is to be limited to walking about the garden during breaks.
That’s a non sequitur if ever I heard one, my mother says.
Mama! I cry, Can’t you leave me alone for just two weeks?
Heads swivel, shining the searchlight of their gazes on me. The teacher scans our faces trying to determine who is responsible for the outburst.
I look down at my hands in my lap—strong, capable hands.
There is to be no running, the teacher resumes, in a smooth clear voice. No recording devices or cameras. No religious or ritualistic practices. No smoking, drinking or drugs. No playing or listening to music, no reading or writing.
My mother is silent now, but I know what she’s thinking.
Later, we sit down in the dining hall for our first meal.
Everybody eats in silence, except my mother, who says, The food is as bland as concrete.
We rise in the morning at 4 a.m. and stumble into the hall. I sit among the other women, back against the wall.
Let’s begin, says the teacher. Close your eyes.
Keep your eyes open, my mother commands me.
I close my eyes, like plunging into cold water.
A breeze sweeps in through the double doors at the front of the hall, cool morning air on my face and throat.
Let’s leave while the door is still open, whispers my mother. In case they lock us in.
The only thing that merits your attention is your breath, the teacher says.
And who gave you breath? my mother insists. And for what purpose?
The teacher’s voice is calm but pointed: The past is a story we tell ourselves, memories are fantasies, the future is a mirage. Even our identity, the idea we hold of ourselves, is a construct. All we have is the present. Nothing else is real.
Try telling an historian the past is not real, my mother says. Try telling that to the Jews!
As your breath merges with the air, so too, allow the idea of yourself to merge, continues the teacher. Lose yourself.
You know very well who you are, says my mother, so be it.
Go and sit somewhere else, I tell her.
Sit in silence, says the teacher, and become familiar with peace.
Speak, my mother says. Only then will you know peace.
Shut up! I hiss.
Sit in noble silence, the teacher says. Only in silence can we know truth.
There is nothing noble about silence! my mother shouts. Silence is a kind of death!
When I open my eyes at the end of the session, I see her through the window, spinning like a whirling dervish in the tall grass, a look of ecstasy on her face.
MY MOTHER, whose name was Leda, never shied from telling stories about the Dutch circus pedigree from which she’d sprung. If her ancestors were revealed to be a little unhinged in the process, so be it.
My middle name, Maartje, comes from Flying Maartje May, the first woman in the world to successfully complete a triple somersault to catch on the flying trapeze, a woman of such reckless grace and beauty that during an 1853 tour of the goldfields, men emerged from the mines to shower her in gold dust; government officials and diggers alike thronged to witness the glitz and glory of the famous flying Volgiers, who appeared with tumblers, sword-swallowers, fire-eaters with turpentine breath, poodles and tigers, in the greatest show on Earth. In every settlement in the colonies, newspapers ran features praising the skill, daring and sheer magnitude of the Rodzirkus enterprise, a global force with a cast of hundreds, many tonnes of equipment, and its own steamship to transport the whole shebang across the sea. Maartje May was the queen of this empire, its strange and imperfect diamond.
My father, on the other hand, was not interested in foraging about the branches of the family tree. He was the sort to ignore his ancestor’s rumblings, a staunch individualist who attempted to forge a life with recourse only to the here and now, free from the manacles of the past. He would forget a man as soon as turn a corner, or at least give the appearance of having done so.
But despite his distaste for genealogy, it was my father who held a forefinger to my face and repeated the maxim, know thyself, so this is what I set out to do.
Now I am building a cairn to show where I have been.
My great-great-great-grandfather Ernest Lord spent much of his childhood exploring the beaches, cliffs and moors of his native Cornwall. But as he approached the grandeur of adulthood he became jaded with the muted colours of the English landscape and its dun-coloured fauna. Shooting rabbits began to bore him.
One day there arrived in his mailbox a catalogue of new publications from his favourite bookseller in Covent Garden. He soon ordered a fully illustrated collection of essays on the subject of Africa. Several weeks later, by way of the Royal Mail, a heavy parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string arrived at his door.
That evening, Ernest perched on his desk chair and lit his oil lamp. The leather binding creaked in a satisfactory way as he opened the tome, always a good start. Savouring the marbled frontispiece, he turned to the introduction:
Where the Wind blows North for six Months then bloweth West, the Ocean kisses her nethermost Tip. Across churning Seas, far beyond Spain and mystical Arabia, past the Tropic of Capricorn at a Latitude of forty-three degrees South and a Longitude of twenty degrees East—here lies the magnificent land of Africa. Untamed Seductress! She of brutal Beauty! From her burning Deserts to the lushest Jungles on Earth, only the most forthright and bravest of Men shall know Her, the most unmerciful of all God’s Lands. Lo! Many a rational Man has perished in pursuit of her Charms: Birds of luminescent Feather, Butterflies of spectacular incandescence—a Land whose beauty is equal only to her terrible Dangers: Flesh-eating Piranha Fish, horned Wildebeest and tribes of Cannibal men…
Ernest shifted in his seat. He knew all about latitude and longitude. No longer were men blown around the earth like witless goldfish in brandy balloons. This was the age of unarguable truths. The mysteries of the Earth had at last been reduced to the comfort of numbers. He turned some pages and lifted the tissue protector leaves to reveal etchings of explorers hacking paths through jungles with machetes, of triumphant hunters hoisting animals’ heads high above their own, men with rifles slung over their backs and water bladders at their hips, men in jodhpurs, shirtsleeves, pith helmets and knee-high lace-up boots, men with sagacious faces. Ernest turned some more pages. Here was a plate entitled ‘Bare-breasted Amazonian’, there, ‘Pygmy with Spear’.
He went to the sideboard and looked at his reflection in the mirror. Was he, Ernest Lord, an intrepid man, he asked of his bookish face? Was he the sort of man who would dare venture forth to the farthest flung regions of the earth? He poured himself a glass of whisky from his new crystal decanter. He knew how to recognise a finely crafted thing.
Winter rain and winds buffeted the windows while Ernest read late into the night—about women who carried babies in folds of fabric on their backs, or who walked mile upon mile conveying all manner of baskets and earthen vessels on their heads without even the use of their hands.
Ernest stood up. Balancing his glass on his head, he walked across the room, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. But he had spent too many hours at his desk and his posture was poor. The glass soon fell to the floor (fortunately landing on the rug without breaking). He felt a little embarrassed as he returned to his desk, despite the absence of witnesses.
He read on into the early hours, about men who caught fish in cone-shaped woven baskets. He studied the pictures of idols, carvings, drums and masks. The second half of the book was devoted to the Animal Kingdom. Here was the baboon with an indecently red posterior, there the lion, zebra, hyena, ostrich, and the giraffe with its bone antennae. To think that these animals shared the same planet and breathed the same atmosphere as Civilised Man!
Here at last was the elephant:
The Elephantidae is a family of the Pachydermata order, containing the extant African elephants Loxodonta (pictured) and Indian elephants Elephantus, and their close relative, the now extinct Mammoths Mammuthus species. From birth, elephantids have thick, grey, wrinkled skin, sparse hair, and long prehensile trunks. The upper incisors extend into long, arching tusks. The African elephant, Loxodonta africanas, is larger than its Indian cousin, and distinguished by its enormous flapping ears.
It was almost unfathomable, Ernest thought, that, in an evolutionary blink of an eye, Man had evolved to use four sets of cutlery at dinner while the elephant had spent thousands of years wallowing in mud with little adaptation other than the loss of most of its hair.
Considering elephants made Ernest feel humbled almost to the point of inconsequence: elephants made the higher purpose of Man and his dinnerware seem futile. He wanted to find a way to conquer these great thumping beasts. He wanted to demonstrate beyond doubt Man’s supremacy on God’s Earth. And he would make the whole endeavour as profitable as possible while he was at it.
Ernest’s interest in the natural world was second only to his passion for progress. He hailed the invention of steam engines that enabled Man to travel faster and further than ever before. He hailed the laying of shining miles of railway across continents, and modern ships that cut swiftly through the seven seas.
It was with wonderment that Ernest read the daily shipping news. Over time, he noted, passages betwixt England and Africa were becoming ever more frequent. The importation of exotic goods and materials from remote regions of the world was a blossoming industry.
When he inherited a small sum of money, he invested in coal and steel and soon found himself making money from money without offering any real skill or service in exchange. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he was well situated to set up his own business.
As he pondered for the umpteenth time the pictures of elephants frolicking in the quagmires of a distant savannah, Ernest had an idea so lucid he felt it slam against the inside of his skull.
He rented a brick warehouse by St Katherine docks and, after conducting many interviews, employed five men: Misters Hopkins, Barnes, Jenkins, Hope and Foley. Above the door he hung a shingle with The Ivory Lord inscribed in an elegant font. His friend the Reverend Stone blessed the premises, waving his reverend arms and sprinkling holy water about.
Eight months later, Ernest opened the paper to read that the Excelsia was due to dock in London in the next few days. Its shipment, from East Africa, included his first order of ivory.
Ernest’s business was a success, and success suited him very well. He bought a house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, dressed the floors with zebra skins and hung a deer’s head in the hall. (The merchant business offered substantial perks.) In the parlour he installed a Broadwood & Sons piano with mahogany and walnut casing and ebony and ivory keys.
Ernest soon lured the attentions of a number of women. One of them, a descendant of Huguenots by the name of Henrietta, had an edge over her contenders because, as well as being well-spoken and neatly dressed, she was, as Ernest discovered on a pleasant day of hunting in the countryside, a deadeye with a rifle.
It was summer when Henrietta and Ernest made their vows in a church in Cornwall. Henrietta wore a broderie anglaise dress and carried a bunch of daisies. Reverend Stone read from a Book of Prayers with ivory covers. The reception was held under an oak tree behind the church, the table laid with Belgian linen, the silverware flashing in the sun. Twenty-seven guests ate pheasant and capers off pale green porcelain plates. Champagne flutes chimed merrily as the party saluted love and elephants.
So I imagine.
One Saturday morning, Henrietta brought in the newspaper and opened it to page four. Beside an advertisement for ladies’ shaping undergarments, the lurid headline, Lord Makes a Killing was accompanied by an article detailing the marvellous riches to be found in some of the farthest-flung regions of the Earth.
Henrietta held up the paper for Ernest to see, but he only nodded distractedly, pricking his poached egg with his fork, watching the orange yolk bleed across his plate.
The headline was mildly amusing at best, Henrietta observed, as she poured the tea; the pun had become the mainstay of English journalism and the merits of understatement were often overlooked.
It was unthinkable that the supply of ivory from Africa should ever dwindle. For all its charm, what was the natural world other than an endless source of riches for Man and His Queen? But the elephants were not breeding fast enough. And as others sought to replicate Ernest’s success, hunters’ prices, shipping costs and importation tariffs all increased. Ernest had no interest in becoming involved with the illegal slave trade as some other merchants had done in an effort to increase their profits.
A time arrived when Ernest made only a modest living from ivory, and then, barely a living at all.
He spent a week at home to take stock. For two days he sat at the piano searching for an answer among its notes, leaving the piano stool only to sleep. By the third day he had decided to go to Africa himself. Perhaps he could find a hitherto-undiscovered region that was teeming with beasts? But by day five he had rejected the idea. At that very moment there must have been thousands of Englishmen crawling all over Africa looking high and low for that untapped region. Africa was no longer a frontier. On day six Ernest composed a new hymn, with an emphasis on the sostenuto pedal; the bass notes boomed down the hallway. Then he turned back to his books.
Every morning Henrietta prepared Ernest’s breakfast and left it on a tray outside the living-room door with the morning paper, as she would for a benign but unfamiliar house guest. This was not the first time Ernest had considered visiting Africa. But they were planning on having children some time in the near future and, although she was fond of adventure, Henrietta did not fancy chugging down the Nile with an infant at her breast. Ernest would go alone or not at all.
Perhaps, suggested Henrietta, there was some other, less-traversed land to explore, a land whose flora and fauna were yet to be plundered?
She was right. He, Ernest Lord, wanted to find such a place. In the meantime he would return to his studies of geography and natural history. Where were his coloured inks?