Please welcome Emma Ashmere, who is here to discuss her debut novel.
The Floating Garden
The Floating Garden is set in 1920s Sydney and tells the little known story of the people who were evicted for the building of the Harbour Bridge.
I’ve written short stories since the 1990s and was always thinking about writing a novel. The idea The Floating Garden came to me unexpectedly. I was sifting through some old items in a secondhand shop one afternoon with an artist friend. Amid the dusty clutter, a 1930s souvenir of the Sydney Harbour Bridge shone out. My friend picked it up, pointed to the northern pylon of the bridge and said, ‘My grandmother’s house used to be under there.’ I stared at the souvenir. I stared at my friend. A thousand questions flared in my mind.
My friend only knew a few facts about her late grandmother: her harbourside boarding house was demolished in 1926 for the building of the bridge; she received no compensation; and survived the 1930s Great Depression by selling flowers from a suitcase outside a busy Sydney railway station.
A suitcase full of flowers? I was hooked.
A few months later, we walked beneath the shadow of the bridge, trying to work out where the house had once stood. There was no physical trace but there was a moment when my friend stopped, sensing an uncanny presence lingering between the layers of history. We knew that was where the house must have been.
The plot of The Floating Garden unfolds in three strands. It opens 1926. Ellis Gilbey is a fifty-something quietly spoken landlady of a rundown boarding house which has just been marked for demolition. She is also a closet writer of a popular gardening column, published under the name ‘Scribbly Gum’. Everyone assumes Scribbly Gum is a wealthy male owner of a grand estate. In truth, Ellis is virtually penniless. Her boarded house is rented, and her garden is a tiny plot choked by dust from the demolition works.
Across the harbour, the wealthy flighty artist Rennie Howarth is facing troubles of her own. Recently married and arrived from England, Rennie’s dominating husband forces her to exhibit her artworks as an introduction to high society. The exhibition is a failure. Rennie feels increasingly desolate as she wanders through an unfamiliar city.
These two storylines are braided into Ellis’ recollections of running away from her father’s drought-ravaged farm in the 1890s after her mother’s death. Ellis eventually finds shelter with a group of quasi-theosophists who preach about the afterlife in the charismatic Sydney halls. It’s here Ellis falls for the entrancing and troubled Kitty Tate. But there are things Ellis must give up in exchange for food, shelter, and work. Pushed hard by her new employer, the steely-eyed Miss Minerva Stranks, Ellis finds herself at the centre of a cut-throat world of trickery.
Back in 1926, Ellis’ tight knit community is being torn apart. Gangs of toughs have begun to roam the empty streets. A shocking event almost pushes Ellis over the edge until Fate throws in an unexpected possibility. But first, Ellis must learn to trust others – and to forgive herself.
A love story with a historical bent, The Floating Garden is about seizing second chances and finding hope amongst the ruins.
Sydney, Milsons Point, 1926. Entire streets are being demolished for the building of the Harbour Bridge. Ellis Gilbey, landlady by day, gardening writer by night, is set to lose everything. Only the faith in the book she’s writing, and hopes for a garden of her own, stave off despair. As the tight-knit community splinters and her familiar world crumbles, Ellis relives her escape to the city at 16, landing in the unlikely care of self-styled theosophist Minerva Stranks. When artist Rennie Howarth knocks on her door seeking refuge from a stifling upper-class life and an abusive husband, Ellis glimpses a chance to fulfil her dreams. This beautiful novel evokes the hardships and the glories of Sydney’s past and tells the little-known story of those made homeless to make way for the famous bridge. Peopled by bohemians and charlatans, earthy folk and fly-by-nighters, The Floating Garden is about shedding secrets, seizing second chances, and finding love among the ruins.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Emma Ashmere’s short stories have won awards and have appeared in The Age, Griffith Review, Sleepers Almanac, Australian Womens Book Review, Press: 100 Love Letters, Sydney Star Observer and NGVmagazine. In November 2017 her #8Wordstory flickered across three Brisbane digital billboards for a week. Her debut novel The Floating Garden (Spinifex Press 2015) was shortlisted for the MUBA prize. She lives in regional New South Wales.
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