A Dream Life | Claire Messud #AUSnovella

Sydney, 1971

The American family rented the house without having seen it – how could they have, halfway around the world? – so they did not know what it meant.

Tablo Tales is a new Melbourne-based imprint in the hands of Jemma Birrell (some of you might know of Jemma as the Artistic Director of the Sydney Writers Festival from 2012 – 2016). According to their website, Tablo Tales are “the only self-publishing platform that also offers traditional representation to authors.

They currently have two books published – A Dream Life by Claire Messud and No. 91/92: A Parisian Bus Diary by Lauren Elkin – with a note saying more authors to be announced soon.

At only 121 pages, A Dream Life was the prefect choice for a November read, allowing me to tick my AusReading Month box and Novellas in November with the one title.

Messud has a swag of books to her name and I cannot believe I haven’t read her before. This little taste was utterly charming and delightful and a little bit creepy. In her acknowledgements Messud reveals that she wrote this story a while ago in the American Library in Paris.

A Dream Life is Australian by setting only. Messud is now based in the US with her family, but her Canadian mother and French father moved to Australia in the 1970’s for his work.

When she was a child, her Canadian mother put aside her ambitions to be a lawyer while her father worked for a French specialty steels company that took the family around the world, stopping in the U.S., Australia and Toronto….“It was as if my mother was in a slippery pit trying to claw her way out and was not able to. Being a good wife and mother meant sacrificing all your dreams.” 

Toronto Life | March 2013

Her mother’s life in Sydney may not have been always happy, but Messud remembers her own years in Sydney very fondly.

those years in Sydney were ”halcyon days”.

“Ours was a life of privilege. Australia was considered a hardship posting because it was so far away, so we were given lovely places to live in – first in Point Piper, then we moved to a flat in Woollahra, where we shared a pool with our landlords, the Packers. I remember playing Marco Polo in the water with Gretel and James. He was this long-limbed, skinny kid, as agile as a monkey.”

SMH | Caroline Baum | 20 April 2013

The Booktopia blog also reveals that, just like the family in The Dream Life, Messud’s family lived in “Point Piper, on Wolseley Road, in the grandest house I’ve ever lived in, and my sister and I attended a private girls’ school – first in Vaucluse, and then in Rose Bay. And we did have, for a while, a live-in housekeeper, who was both amazing and mysterious“. But this story is not about the happy childhood of Messud. For this story she wanted to see those ‘halycon days’ through the eyes of her mother.

Alice is a woman trying to make the best of things. Far away from everything and everyone she knows, she feels like she is living a life that is not real.

Now, slipping like a ghost through the opulent rooms, Alice thought she understood where she was: in a dream life, where nothing could matter and nothing would last, a hiatus from reality, precisely like time travel, would deposit her back on her own shores, in her own time, at some unforeseeable but anticipated moment.

A Dream Life is a very self-contained novella.

All the action occurs within the confines of Chateau Deeds (the name they give the grand house on arrival) and all the dramas are domestic in nature. Hiring servants, managing the children, hosting parties and keeping such a large house clean are the main priorities of Alice. And while there are some delights in being the lady of the manor and feeling the pleasure of giving pleasure, most of the time Alice feels out of her depth, over-whelmed and under-appreciated.

It was as if she had awakened after a drugged sleep to unfamiliar surroundings, as if some irretrievable portion of her life had been stolen from her. She felt her heart palpitating, ferocious in her breast, and almost panicked. How do I get out of here? she thought. How do I get back to myself?

All the little acts of self-deception come tumbling down though in the end.

The grandeur, opulence and elegance are not enough. The ‘portico and trickling fountains…the rose garden and the side lawn and the miniature orchard, the walled garden and the aviary and the garage that resembled stables‘ were not worth it if it meant losing sight of who they really were, if it meant turning “into people I don’t wont to be.”

Messud weaves in little sneaky asides about feminism, class, gender and the immigrant/outsider experience – just enough to give this bright and breezy story a sharp edge. Her fictional mother may not have been happy but she wasn’t unhappy either. Alice was unfulfilled, dissatisfied and lonely. The days at home were long. 1970’s feminism was out there, somewhere, but most women still lived within the traditionally defined roles of their mothers.

Through Alice’s eyes we see a society, a world, on the cusp of change.

Title: A Dream Life
Author: Claire Messud
Cover Design: Alissa Dinallo
ISBN: 9781649697295
Imprint: Tablo Tales of Tablo Publishing
Published: 1st October 2021
Format: Hardback
Pages: 121
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

17 thoughts on “A Dream Life | Claire Messud #AUSnovella

  1. That is hilarious about Australia being a ‘hardship posting’. I think she’s taking the mickey, or that someone was taking the mickey out of her.
    When I read Tony Kevin’s ‘Return to Moscow’ I learned that Moscow under the Soviets was a hardship posting. And by his descriptions, it really *was*!


    1. I think perhaps the definition of hardship might be loosely applied here, but I think it was a heartfelt description nonetheless. Coming from New York to Sydney in 1971 would have been a HUGE culture shock.


  2. Interestingly Australia is also a hardship posting in Elizabeth Jolley’s Lovesong. Obviously Sydney is not Kampala or Kabul, but I could see New Yorkers regarding it as a long way from civilization (I do myself, but then so is most of the US).
    I know it’s probably a first world problem, but, speaking from experience, wives being dragged away from home can make for an unhappy marriage.


    1. I do know what you mean Bill. My dad was a bankie and we moved every 4-5 yrs. Mum knew that logically when she married him, but it didn’t make the moves any easier emotionally when the time came.


  3. I’ve read The emperor’s children, before blogging, and heard good things about The woman upstairs. I was astonished though to see you tag this as AWW! I had no idea she had any relationship with Australia. I would love to read this given I enjoyed her before AND the Australian connection.


    1. Hopefully it doesn’t have an AWW tag just an AUS tag to reflect the setting. And I really enjoyed digging out the Australian references in Messud’s various interviews and articles. When talking to Canadians she had similar stories about her childhood time there as well.

      I followed up on Cathy’s three Messud posts and think I want to read The Woman Upstairs first on the strength of what she had to say.


  4. Well done on getting two challenges in one read, and that does sound a good and intriguing one. I love reading about experiences of new cultures, and that time just before feminism had an effect (ha – if it did) is interesting, too.


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