The chance to see Sarah Turnbull speak was one of the big highlights for me at the recent Mudgee Readers' Festival. I'm so glad I went, her session alone was worth the trip. Sarah was fascinating to listen to and she had a particularly good facilitator for this session.
Like millions of other ladies of a certain age I had read Sarah's memoir Almost French when it came out in 2002, and dreamed of living that Parisian life too. I was somewhat astonished when early on Sarah said she was shocked to have the most envied life according to the SMH. That was surprising for me, and it almost seemed disingenuous, but I came to realise that Sarah is so humble that she really meant it.
Sarah's session was a wide ranging discussion of both her books- there was some discussion about Almost French, but mostly about it was about this years All Good Things. She lived in Paris for 9 years, the time described in Almost French, a title she meant in an ironic way. All Good Things is a more personal memoir, and picks up where Almost French left off.
Sarah's French husband Frederic is a lawyer and he was asked to set up an office in Papetee. Any big move is always a form of escape, and represents the need for rejuvenation. So Sarah and Frederic soon found themselves living in a tropical paradise on Moorea. Her back door was 15 metres from the water, and Sarah would swim in the sparkling waters each morning. Sarah intended to write a novel on Moorea, she had been researching 19th century Breton peasants while in France, but somehow a novel of rural misery couldn't form in her island idyll.
All Good Things is a second memoir, dealing with Sarah's time in Tahiti. She was undergoing fertility treatments over this time. All Good Things deals with the nature of, and longing for paradise and the special nature of islands- any island can be an Alcatraz. You come face to face with yourself on an island. There are no distractions on an island. They were to stay for 3 1/2 years, and Sarah felt very ready to leave when they did, she needed more stimulation than even the soaring peaks, palm trees and blond sand of Tahiti could provide.
Sarah gave us a fascinating discussion on art and artists. Gaugin and Matisse both famously spent time in Tahiti. She felt Gaugin to be a cliche in Tahiti. Matisse captivated her, and his presence is woven throughout the book. Matisse visited Tahiti for 3 months, mainly in Papeete but was grumpy and bored. Matisse was fascinated by the underwater light of Tahiti, he left Polynesia empty handed, and it took 15 before he created his famous sea cutouts. Sarah found this reassuring and gorgeous- you never know what an experience will bring, or how it may inspire something unexpected. She too felt mesmerised every morning by the colours and light as she swam in the warm waters of her island home. Indeed in Tahiti Sarah wrote with a painterly picture of the lagoon above her desk, although All Good Things was written after she had left Tahiti, she needed distance before she could begin writing and process her experiences. Polynesians love colour, and Sarah said she has taken away more use of colour from her time in Tahiti.
Most foreigners stay in Tahiti for 2-4 years (rather common in many expat stays actually, I stayed in Canada for 2 1/2 years), and there was some interesting discussion of the expat experience. Sarah realised that she and Frederic were the outsiders, they needed the Tahitians, but the Tahitians didn't need them.
Paris and Tahiti are both iconic places, both make people dream, and they foster a longing for paradise. This longing can morph into a longing for happiness. She wisely noted that noone ever aspires to be content. Contentment while a beautiful feeling, is a humble aspiration.
Sarah and Frederic now live on Sydney's Northern Beaches, and said she felt like a tourist on her most recent trip to Paris. Sarah offered interesting perspectives on both France and Australia. She sees Australia as having a masculine imprint, while she feels France has a feminine imprint citing packaging as an example- appearance is fundamental, and there is an appreciation of the beauty in small things, functionality is a bonus. Sarah felt that some of our Australian fears as a society were those of an island- fears of boats and invasions by foreigners.
I'm hoping to reread Almost French soon, and have All Good Things ready to go on the shelf. I actually saw Sarah Turnbull in two sessions, she was a panellist in the When Life Throws Us Lemons How Do We Use Them for Gin and Tonic, perhaps I'll have time to tell you about that some time.