One of the focal points of the painting is a house in the distance, which Marsali, the narrator, likens to her own house in Muckleton. She imagines that hidden behind one of the windows is an assassin, pointing a gun at the woman and child in the foreground, about to fire. However idyllic the scene, death is never far away.
Another thematic prop is Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, set within a few kilometres of Field of Poppies, in which some schoolgirls and their teacher mysteriously vanish into the landscape, much like Alice Dooley. As with the Monet painting, extended passages are dedicated to exploring and debating the meaning of the Hanging Rock story.
The narrator has arrived at an original if mundane answer to the mystery, from a comment by one of the characters in the book, Edith. ‘‘Miranda, Marion and Miss McCraw are all, according to Edith, ‘dead as doornails in a nasty old cave full of bats on the Hanging Rock’. Go, Edith! Edith knows.’’ The mysterious threat is ultimately not mysterious at all. It is simply death.
We learn right at the beginning of the novel that a series of setbacks – first a burglary, then the discovery of gold in the hills nearby, which turns peaceful Muckleton into a noisy mining town just as it was in the 1800s – finally persuade Marsali and her husband to return to Melbourne. The idyllic country life, it turns out, was a fantasy. By the end of the novel, this disillusionment is a relief. They have, at least temporarily, escaped something.
The novel sometimes dances around, sometimes probes its themes as it slowly makes its way to a chilling climax. The journey is pleasurable, informative and thought provoking. Bird, who is nearly 80, writes with ease and authority. In part, the novel is a framework within which she can explore her own interests and preoccupations. Here, for example, are her observations on war remembrance customs: ‘‘The memories of war must be preserved, but I have to say the whole thing depresses me, since it doesn’t seem to foreground the folly of war, the madness – quite the opposite – war comes out of it all as being sad but glorious and necessary.’’
Death in all its forms – from the narrator’s own approaching death to the death of the planet – hovers threateningly over this novel. At one point early on, Marsali’s husband bluntly tells her she’s having vivid dreams because she’s close to death. At another point, also early on, she muses on the ecological disaster facing the planet. ‘‘Everywhere you look in this world there is still something sublimely beautiful. But you don’t have look far to find something else that’s terrifyingly horrible … There seems to be no way of avoiding the Apocalypse.’’
Even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – another important literary prop – is seen in a macabre light. When the narrator’s book club decides to read Lewis Carroll’s classic in memory of their missing neighbour, they can’t help but catch a whiff of corpses in the story’s underground setting.
But while the spectre of death runs a constant charge through this novel, Bird’s energetic writing and intelligence ensure Field of Poppies is anything but deathly.