Penni Russon is a fellow Allen and Unwin author who writes Young Adult fiction. I’m always on the lookout for fantastic YA writers because my daughter reads everything I put in front of her, including this wonderful book, Only Ever Always. Penni has also written three other books for Allen and Unwin’s GirlFriend Fiction.
Only Ever Always by Penni Russon
Who dreams the dreamer?? Claire lives in an ordinary world where everything is whole. But inside Claire is broken. The silvery notes of her music box allow her an escape from her grief into a dream-world, into Clara’s world.? Clara’s world has always been broken. She finds broken things to swap at the markets; she walks the treacherous route past the brown river where lone dogs prowl; she avoids the seamy side when she can, but with powerful people pulling the strings, it’s not always possible.? Which world is real? ?Claire’s and Clara’s paths are set to collide, and each has much to lose – or gain. ?Original and poetic, this captivating novel explores dreams, grief, friendship and love through a brilliantly constructed dystopian fantasy world. ?’Like the sound of the little loved music box that is so pivotal to the story, Penni Russon’s Only Ever Always is both deeply touching and strangely eerie, leaving the reader with a mixture of warmth and apprehension, yearning and wonder – about death, life, language, art, dreams and childhood. Fascinating and absolutely memorable.’ – Ursula Dubosarsky
I began Only Ever Always in 2007 and it took me four years to write. It is a small novel but dense, bursting with ideas and driven by questions – questions my children ask me, or questions I ask myself. What is real? What is pretend?
If I mapped the journeys of writing this book (and I really couldn’t), there would be many winding paths looping back on themselves, as well as dead ends and blind corners. Although I have some early sketched out plans, the writing of this book was, by necessity, organic. It grew as an idea grows – in all directions, with false leads as well as true. Actually perhaps the map would look like a botanical drawing: the cross-section of a radish, with wiry hairs that lead nowhere, and a body buried under the earth with just a little scarlet poking up above, and finally the flourishing green fertile leaves at the top which is the part the reader sees.
One thing that happened during the writing process that changed the way I viewed the world and changed the way I thought about fiction was Black Saturday – the devastating bushfires of 2009. The fires came within a kilometre of my house in St Andrews. We were lucky. The change of wind that spared our house took the fires back over houses that had already burned once. People who had fought the front to exhaustion the first time were unable to face it again and perished or lost their houses. This sort of luck isn’t easy to live with.
I was haunted by loss. I felt the encroaching blackness as a dark splotch at the corner of my vision. We drove through a police blockade to get to our house, showing our licenses to prove we weren’t sightseers or looters. Fires continued to burn for days. At 3am our smoke alarm went off because there was so much residual smoke. Sunsets glowed luminescent and eerie and silent, no birds sang. The school closed and opened and closed again. Everyone was on edge. As I looked around our house I thought about the things we might have lost. I wondered what I would take. I couldn’t see anything that really mattered. Old things, new things, even photographs. Everything seemed replaceable. But more than that, everything I looked at had a mirror image – the object I carried in my head. Did I need the physical object too? Wasn’t my internal object more perfect because it lodged in my mind – untouchable, unbreakable?
Friends up the road fled their house in the fires when they saw flames coming down the hill towards them. They had two teenaged kids and a five year old (the same age as my oldest daughter – we knew them through kinder). Let’s call them Christian (16), Milly (14) and Sasha (5). As they fled the house Christian grabbed the two laptops. Milly took toothbrushes and stuff from the bathroom, the things they would need if they were spending the night away from home. She also grabbed her homework – remedial English, because in early high school it was discovered Milly had a reading disorder that somehow flew under the radar in primary school. (Later in the car, as they drove on tires melting to the rims down one blocked road and then another, Christian said to Milly, ‘Why did you grab your homework?’ Milly replied, ‘I don’t want to die dumb.’)In the car Sasha suddenly yelled out ‘Oh no, Rainbow Dash!’ (Rainbow Dash is a My Little Pony – there are millions of copies of them in K-Marts everywhere). Her mum ran inside, grabbed Rainbow Dash and then they bolted. The parents didn’t take anything for themselves. All they cared about was getting the kids into the car. Not everything is replaceable.
I think kids care about objects a lot more than adults do. Adults care about acquiring them, about the status of objects, about the things they represent. But kids care deeply for the objects themselves. They feel things for them – sorrow for the left out unloved teddy with the squished up nose. Deep inexplicable love for a stiff stuffed dog in the op shop. I even remember feeling sympathy for foods I didn’t like, a misplaced empathy for the apple I didn’t choose, left in the fruit bowl.
All my childhood toys were accidentally thrown away when I was a teenager – something that horrifies my children and incidentally is the main plot line for Toy Story 3. Something that horrified me was my best friend, on barely reaching adulthood burned hers, deliberately, in an incinerator at her family home. I felt this loss more than my own – perhaps because I had loved these things from afar, so they weren’t quite mine to hoard inside me.
I wanted to interrogate that loyalty that children have for their things and this became a main part of the characters’ journey in Only Ever Always.
“Littered on your bed are oddments, junk, bric-a-brac, the assorted miscellanea of your life, one-eyed dolls and threadbare teddy bears, two wooden ducks on wheels once joined now split, metal cars, wooden tops. Most of indeterminate value, things without history, but for the fact that they have lived here so long they have become part of you, and you couldn’t bear to excise any of them… For who are you before you own anything? A naked grub, a nothing.”
What is an object in fiction? What does it signify when we make out of words instead of physical parts a music box? Does it matter that there is no three dimensional referent? Is it any less real?
I remember how desperately I wanted to hold the book in Michael Ende’s beautiful novel The Neverending Story. How I longed to read it! But I was reading it, as Bastian read it. But I wanted to bridge the gap, push Bastian aside, seize it in my own hands.
Perhaps this discontent in our interaction with objects in novels makes them more real, because surely we feel the same with the things we have in our possession – a distance created by the very delineated boundary between us and them. As Clara muses, holding a coveted music box in her hands:
I want to hold it so close it gets inside me. I want my skin to grow over it. I want to eat it like it’s fruit. I want it to be more mine than it ever can be. It makes me feel empty, and full.
It’s not an easy thing, the marriage of humans and objects. We curate ourselves with them, our houses are museums of us, made of the things we collect and furnish our lives with – some utilitarian, some inherited, some for purely aesthetic reasons, all of uncertain value – for what are they really worth? To someone else? To us? Our houses are also museums of lost things, because something will part us eventually. Fire or flood, or invariably death – the death of our first object – our bodies, ourselves.
Thank you Penni.
She’s also on Twitter as @eglantinescake.