WAITING FOR CHILDHOOD By Sumner Locke Elliott Harper & Row. 247 pp. $16.95.
FOR JESS LORD, coming home unwillingly, the sight of Australia is almost too much to bear. She "screwed up her eyes against the glare of the hot brilliant sun on green water and white sailboats. After twelve years of the subdued grayness of England, the glare was a shock, strident, disturbing."
If you want to go to Australia -- and, unlike Jess Lord, everyone seems to these days -- Waiting for Childhood is a book that will take you to that strident, self-conscious stepchild of the Empire in the years preceding World War I and up until just before World War II. But to say Waiting for Childhood is a story about Australia is a bit like saying Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is a story about Baltimore. Elliott's novel is more than the history or geography of a continent, it is the intricate chart of a family through whom the land and its people are intimately revealed.
We first meet the Lord family when they are having a formal family portrait taken -- the Reverend Lord and his plump wife in gilt chairs surrounded by their one son and six daughters. It is a deceptively serene portrait, for in a few weeks Father will be dead, Mother will be well on the road to quiet madness and the children will be hurled past childhood and flung along separate paths of colorful and often painful adulthood.
Lily, the first born, the one on whom all the worries and burdens of the family fall, becomes a socialist, bent on saving not only her own brother and sisters, but all the downtrodden. One of the lovely tragicomic episodes of the book details Lily's trip to Tasmania to speak on behalf of the Women's Socialist Movement. Anyone who has ever left home to make a speech will laugh or, perhaps, cry in sympathetic recognition.
Lily fails in her self-appointed mission, of course, but Elliott will not let us despise her. He wants us to love them all, and in the end, we do. Even Jess, who deliberately cuts herself off from her family and her rough, unfinished nation, wins the reader's grudging goodwill before the story is done.
Though descriptions of the landscape and its people indicate that Elliott still cares for his native land, what he has concerned himself with primarily in this novel is a family. The colors may be heightened, the edges sharper, the scale grander than in the ordinary family -- after all, this is Australia -- but Elliott makes the individual Lords and their relationships work. The book does in full living color for the heart what a double acrostic does for the mind. At first, for instance, it's hard to believe in Adnia, the club-footed sister who "finds" religion, but skepticism is swept aside and everything seems to fit when the author takes us into her narrow life and relates the brief, humorous encounter which provides the miracle of healing she has prayed for.
WHEN I READ Elliott's first novel, Careful, He Might Hear You, and later when I read Signs of Life, it occurred to me that here was a man who liked women, who found them more interesting to write about than men. As I began Waiting for Childhood, and realized that there was only one brother and that the father was dead by page 10, I began to think that once again Elliott had chosen to concentrate on his women, displaying his usual understanding of their inner workings. Mignon's aborted love affair and subsequent jealousy are totally believable, for example, whereas often Elliott's men, including the Reverend Lord himself, seem more ploy than person.
Fred Lord, the only son, is a welcome exception. Fred's weak heart keeps him out of World War I, and his inability to communicate renders him an apparent loser in career and life, but he is not a failure as a character. From his first giggly knowledge of his difference from his sisters, through his adolescent crush on his sister Sidney, into his peculiar, but loving marriage, Fred is a man who will be fondly remembered long after the bushrangers and minor politicians and laborers and clergymen who dart in and out of Elliott's books are forgotten.
Readers who were enchanted by Careful, He Might Hear You 20 odd years ago may justifiably sense a certain de'ja` vu while reading Waiting for Childhood. Elliott has gone once again to the large family of an Anglican clergyman. In the first book there was no son and only five daughters, but among the daughters there were, just as there are here, a childless daughter married to a labor activist, a daughter who finds religion, a daughter who becomes a companion to a rich relative and sails off to England, and a daughter who is an artistic free spirit, marries inappropriately and dies in childbirth.
Yet, despite the similarities, Waiting for Childhood is a new story and a good one. Through the prism of a single family, Sumner Locke Elliott has again broken Australian life into a dazzling spectrum. You may very well find yourself re-reading it with increasing pleasure. I did.
Katherine Paterson's latest book is a translation from the Japanese of "The Tongue-Cut Sparrow." Her new children's novel will be published in the spring.