The Scent Of Bougainvillea

How to lose your reader in one sniff.

Picture this: the story is absorbing. The writing is excellent, the characters engaging. The plot is intriguing and altogether you’re riding along, happy as a lark, engrossed in this new book. And then – bang! Suddenly it’s all gone to hell in a handcart.

In this instance the jolt is a careless mistake made by the author. It leaps out of the page at you and makes your teeth rattle, concentration goes haywire and instead of racketing happily along the narrative highway you – the reader – are left thinking: “hang on a minute, that’s not right. And if thats not right, what else is wrong?” In other words, one of the bedrock clauses in the contract between writer and reader has been broken.

In general, readers want to trust their authors and that holds good whatever the genre – including fiction. In fact, probably more so with fiction because the reader is being enticed onto a winding road through the deep dark woods of the unknown, the probables and the unlikelies. And you really need to trust that the enticer knows the way and won’t suddenly plunge you into the chasm of doubt and disappointment that rages beneath a cavalier way with words.

It can be a tiny crime – and most often is – but once committed, is never forgotten. For instance, in the deliriously readable The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson has her heroine swanning about on Capri where, “the air was hung with the scent of bougainvillea”.

Sara Wheeler did the same in Travels In a Thin Country  (about Chile – great title!) where, on arriving at an airport at some ear-popping Andean altitude, the first thing she detected was that same scent of bougainvillea.

For the botanically challenged: if the vividly-coloured plant smells of anything it’s hot sun and dust: bougainvillea is not scented.

More recently Carol Birch published a well received novelised life of a convict woman of early Australia: Margaret Catchpole. In Scapegallow (another great title!), Birch tells of the derring-do and mystery of a young woman who was born a poor farmer’s daughter in East Anglia in the late 1700s; who as a young woman became the valued servant and confidant of Romantic poet Elizabeth Cobbold and, for reasons both debatable and obscure, left her employ, fell on hard times and stole a horse from the Cobbold stables. Horse theft was one of many capital offences in Georgian England and why Margaret did that – and rode 70 miles to London to try to sell the animal – is a tale that really needs to be told.

What is also fascinating is that in court Elizabeth pleaded for Margaret’s life and when her sentence was commuted to transportation, Elizabeth sent Margaret to the penal colony with a chest of goods that would stand her in good stead on her arrival. In many ways therefore Margaret led a charmed life. On arrival in Sydney town she was immediately employed by a gentleman’s family, went on to become a respected midwife and farmer and died a free woman.

We know about her because she left letters (rare for a woman of her class) and her letter to Elizabeth is one of the few eyewitness accounts of the terrible Hawkesbury River floods of the early 1800s. In the opening chapters of her book, Birch writes vividly of the devastation.

She describes how Margaret and the family she rescued are trapped in the upper floors of a farmhouse high above the raging river. One of the few things they can see is a jacaranda tree in full bloom. The vivid purple would indeed have been memorable – an image that Birch couldn’t resist.

However, although Margaret did live through the freakish floods of the first decade of the 19th century – 1801, 1806 and 1809 – each occurred between March and May. Unfortunately, jacaranda blooms in late October into November. And it was first introduced to Australia from South America by the botanist Alexander Macleay in 1825.

The book has been set aside. I don’t feel like going on with it because I don’t trust it anymore. Is that an excessive response? Maybe, maybe not. What do you think? Does it bother you? Do you have favourite or least favourite bloopers? I’d love to know.