Enter Blackburn's world and battle demons in Bedlam

September 24, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

British writer Julia Blackburn, the daughter of poet Thomas Blackburn (1916-1977), has written several interesting books the most recent of which is "The Book of Color" (Pantheon Books, 1995, $22), a novel about her family. But be warned: Any writer describe as a "dazzling original" who creates an "ethereal and enigmatic" work might also legitimately be described as "hard to read." At least, that was the case for me. Blackburn writes beautifully -- her book is an example of prose poetry -- but I thought she failed to "glide effortlessly back and forth between generations, perspectives, setting and bloodlines."

The story began on Praslin, one of the tiny Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, where Blackburn's grandfather, Eliel, was born in 1880, the son of a missionary. Cursed by a mystic, Eliel moves first to Mauritius (where the last Dodo died) and then to England where he becomes a minister. His son, Thomas, doesn't have the strength to cast out his own demons and spends the last decade of his life wandering the halls of Bedlam.

A short book, only 175 pages long, I found it richly confusing. I much preferred Blackburn's wonderful "Daisy Bates in the Desert." Irish-born Daisy Bates was a real woman who spent most of her adult life living with the aborigines in the Australian outback. She first came to Australia in 1883 or maybe it was 1882 or 1884. It seems that Daisy Bates was an incorrigible liar and her biographers - one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s - had a very hard time indeed sorting out the facts of her life, separating truth from fiction. So Blackburn didn't try to write a traditional biography. She took the basic facts and constructed Bates' strange life in the South Australian desert.

Blackburn recently completed a book tour in the United States and during a phone interview she talked about the eccentric woman.

"I first heard of Daisy Bates a long time ago," she said. "I heard about a well-dressed woman who lived for years in this naked landscape. Then I got a lot of her letters sent to me (in Suffolk) from Australia." Blackburn became fascinated with her strange subject to the extent that she and her husband and two children made a trip to Australia where they tried to locate all the people, especially the aboriginal people, who might have known her. Bates died in the early 1950s.

Blackburn said "Daisy Bates" was well received in Australia and the United Kingdom although at different points both feminists and anthropologists "took against" Bates. For this odd woman didn't fit the role of a liberator or an academic. She just loved the aboriginal people in a maternalistic sort of way and sought for many years to be their government-sanctioned protector, a role she was never officially assigned.

"Daisy Bates in the Desert" is available in paperback (Vintage Books, $12). Blackburn also wrote "The Emperor's Last Island" about Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, mixing stories about her own family and visits to the island with details about Napoleon.

Blackburn, 47, describes herself as a full-time writer and mother who writes during her children's school hours. Her husband is a sculptor.

"For five hours everyday even without inspiration I sit at my desk," she said. "My father always distinguished between writers and other people. I take it less seriously." She doesn't write poetry. Instead for her next book she has returned to biography and this time has chosen a woman on a pilgrimage in the early 15th century.

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