The Floating Garden is set in 1920s Sydney. The novel was inspired by a friend’s grandmother who was evicted from her house for the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She survived this upheaval and the 1930s Great Depression by growing flowers and selling them from a suitcase outside a city railway station.
In The Floating Garden, Ellis Gilbey runs a rundown harbour-side boarding house. She also writes gardening columns on the sly, under the pseudonym ‘Scribbly Gum’. But her world begins to crumble when her street is marked for demolition.
Ellis retreats into the past, remembering when she ran away from her father’s drought-stricken farm and was taken in by the self-styled Sydney theosophist, Miss Minerva Stranks. It’s there she meets and falls for the beguiling Kitty Tate. But Ellis must make a choice to survive.
Back in 1926, the wealthy English artist Rennie Howarth is desperate to escape her suffocating marriage. She traipses around Sydney visiting the art gallery, eating cake, and sketching the Harbour Bridge. For Ellis, the demolition men are inching closer. All seems lost until there’s a knock at her door. A new world promises to open up. Or does it?
I’ve always been interested in writing about the kind of people who don’t make it into history books. In The Floating Garden I wanted to go past the image of the 1920s ‘flapper girls’ who danced all night in beaded dresses. What about the other women, the outsiders, who didn’t swill French champagne until dawn or skid about in expensive cars – although a little bit of that does whoomph its way into the novel. How did they find each other and form relationships? A condemned boarding house seemed a good place to start.
I was also interested in women artists of that time. Several set up their painting easels beside the Harbour Bridge while it was being built. Many were ridiculed in the newspapers for their ‘outlandish’ modern style and for attempting such an ‘unfeminine’ subject. The painting on the cover of The Floating Garden is called ‘The Bridge’ and was painted in 1931 by the modernist South Australian woman, Dorrit Black.
Despite growing up in a small city in a conservative religious family, I did glimpse a few unconventional women. In the late 1960s a British cousin and her ‘great friend’ stopped off as they drove around Australia in an old army jeep. They lived together in a cottage in Wales until their deaths. There was also the farm I used to visit where my uncle worked. The manager was a ‘spinster’. She had short hair, wore trousers, didn’t like children much, chain-smoked roll-up cigarettes, and swigged brandy from a hip flask. Years later I found her grave in a tiny rural cemetery and discovered she’d been buried beside the women we knew only as her housekeeper.
As a writer of long and short fiction, I’ll keep mixing fact and memory, truth and invention, and try to fill in a few more of history’s gaps.
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.
Interview on Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksplus/ashmere/6449436
Interview on Wordmothers
Review of The Floating Garden ANZlitlovers
Review of The Floating Garden Me, You & Books
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