Book Review / A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay

Amanda McLeod reviews Ashley Hay’s A Hundred Small Lessons.

In the 1940s, Elsie Gormley and her husband become the proud owners of a brand-new house in a riverside suburb of inner Brisbane. Here, Elsie builds the life she has always dreamed of, as loving wife to Clem and devoted mother to Elaine and Don. Sixty-two years later, a fall results in Elsie being moved to a nursing home and the house being sold to Lucy and Ben. New parents in a new city, they struggle to fit into their new identities in a home filled with echoes of its previous resident.

Author Ashley Hay weaves the two narratives together beautifully, using connective details and subtle repetitions through Elsie and Lucy’s stories to build a sense of connection between strangers. While the two women initially seem very different, as their stories unfurl, both begin to wonder about what could have been. Questions of desire and fulfilment arise frequently throughout, framed by intergenerational change with a subtle nod to the impact of feminism. Elsie, having constructed herself through her role as wife and mother, marvels that her own daughter could find the same life so unsatisfying; but as years progress, she finds herself considering lost possibilities. Later, newly minted stay-at-home mother Lucy looks to her own past, wondering if she’ll ever rediscover her sense of self in a lifestyle choice her mother declares “archaic.” Hay frames the struggle for identity against our sense of place and its deeply rooted connection to our inner selves. Her explorations of how we construct identities and memories embedded in places and objects is reflected in both Elsie’s discombobulation when she’s forced to leave her old house, and in Lucy’s struggle to feel any sense of belonging in a house so infused with the identity of someone else.

Hay’s prose flows beautifully and is easy to read. She perfectly captures the complexity of relationships between parents and children, who we are and who others would have us be, and the cyclic rhythms of life that see us build and rebuild ourselves. Her storytelling is finely tuned, and she delivers an elaborate and rich narrative tapestry that demonstrates the way the everyday moments of our lives come together to build our pasts, and how the ordinary pieces of those pasts shape us into our presents and our futures.

Amanda McLeod is a Canberra-based author and artist, with several short fiction works published in print and online. Find her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites.

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