I had never heard of Australian author Kylie Tennant before I was contacted by Michael Walmer about a review copy of her 1943 novel, Time Enough Later. I visited Australia in the winter of 2015, and since then I have tried my best to read as many books by Australian authors as I can – something which has surprisingly not been that easy – and was looking forward to discovering another, particularly by a writer thought of as ‘one of the finest Australian voices of the twentieth century’.
The Bulletin calls Time Enough Later ‘a very merry little novel’. It is set in the late 1930s, and follows protagonist Bessie Drew, who is working at a biscuit factory in Sydney. She soon becomes a ‘helpmeet’ to her dysfunctional family’s newest lodger, Maurice Wainwright, an out-of-work photographer who is ‘ill and down on his luck’. She becomes his assistant when he opens a new photography studio, and quickly becomes enamoured with him. Their relationship evolves, but not to Bessie’s satisfaction; she finds herself yearning for something more.
Bessie is described as ‘sturdy and dependable’. Tennant comments: ‘She had a habit of standing with her feet planted apart as though to repel the buffets of some hostile force. She was not at all pretty; but she had rigour, the cool imprudence and humour of youth, and was as unselfconscious and independent as a butcher-boy.’ The job which Wainwright offers her takes her life in a different direction to what she had imagined. I really liked the way in which Bessie was something of a modern heroine; she is stubborn and headstrong, and not at all submissive.
Tennant captures Sydney and its poverty rather well. Close to the outset, she writes: ‘Archer Street, Redfern, just missed being a slum by a narrow margin. It had not made up its mind whether it was a busy industrial thoroughfare or a quiet stretch of working-men’s terraces. A depressing squalor, a respectable squalor, afflicted it; this was compounded of soot from the machine shops, the smells of a brewery and a patent medicine factory, a lack of interest on the part of landlords, and the noise of trams from the street corner.’ With regard to the social history which Tennant offers, and the look at the pre-World War Two class system within Australia, Time Enough Later is undoubtedly an important novel.
Much of the narrative in Time Enough Later is comprised of conversations between characters. This is a technique which is fine in moderation, but it felt very overdone here. It perhaps would have been different had the characters been speaking about much of interest, but often their interactions were dull and nothing out of the ordinary. I also found a lot of the turns of phrase which Tennant uses throughout Time Enough Later odd, or offbeat; for example, ‘That was the effect Maurice Wainwright had on people. You either hated the sight of him or he would have your liver for breakfast.’
I wasn’t entirely impressed with Tennant’s fourth novel. Although it is described as a comic novel in its blurb, for me, Time Enough Later just did not hit the mark. The humour fell flat for me; perhaps this is due to the dated feel which it has in the modern world. I also did not find the novel overly entertaining. Whilst there are some profound moments, and I did have some interest in the character of Bessie, many of the scenes are farcical, almost slapstick, in their approach and outcome. I found that these silly moments detracted from the importance of the novel as a social and historical commentary. This is not something which I generally enjoy, so it may be that I am simply not the right audience for this novel, or for this writer. There is a certain kind of reader sure to find Time Enough Later entirely hilarious, but I am evidently not it.