If You Were Mine has been quietly gathering some rather good reviews, an unlooked for and, to me, surprising critical response: critics, after all, are there to criticise.
My first novel, Nights in the Asylum, attracted a modest clutch of reviews, everything from guarded praise to frustrating pieces which misnamed characters and appeared not to understand the plot. One review in a major Australian newspaper seemed to reserve judgement until the reviewer could read what I wrote next, as if the years of effort had produced a work whose existence and value was somehow still contingent upon further effort.
Somewhere between this response and a review packed with compliments, I decided that reading my own reviews could be dangerous to my health, since sustained jaw clenching could, at best, only result in expensive and possibly painful root canal fillings.
When a manuscript goes off to the printer, a writer's work is finished and the resulting book embarks upon a life of its own. By the time Nights went to print I was already busy writing a new novel, so when it won the Nita B Kibble Award I was, of course, delighted, but most of all surprised, since nothing in those reviews had hinted at the possibility of appreciation on a grand scale.
Perhaps because of that award, If You Were Mine has been treated more thoughtfully by a greater number of reviewers. This heightened interest is one of the long-term benefits of literary prizes, as valuable in its way as the prize money, and the boost to confidence that comes with winning an important literary award.
Although I try not to squander too many hours looking out for reviews, inevitably they wing their way towards my inbox, but this time around it hasn't been at all an unpleasant... The review that has pleased me most was written by Frank O'Shea and appeared in the Canberra Times under the title Irish life, reflected and distorted through outsiders' eyes. In this appraisal of two books set in Ireland and written by non-Irish writers, If You Were Mine came through more or less unscathed.
This was just the type of scrutiny I dreaded while writing the book, for although my love for Ireland is both broad and deep, my Irish heritage has passed out of living memory and writing across cultures is fraught with danger, not the least of which is a tendency to write stereotypical characters and dialogue.
Since I was determined to set part of the novel in Ireland and could not populate the country with ex-pat Australians, my research necessarily became a way of life more than concientious page-turning. I travelled to Ireland, of course, although I wasn't able to stay there nearly as long as I wanted. Then when I came home I stuck exclusively to reading Irish writers, listening for the sound of Ireland in their prose as I tried to judge what I, as a foreigner, could get away with.
I also spent a lot of time playing the tin whistle I'd bought in Dublin and eventually became proficient enough to play with other people, so that now the hours I spend playing early and Irish traditional music in the ensemble Maire Dall (Blind Mary) are among the happiest in the week. With a first gig coming up in December, this is the aspect of writing I love the most - the way the writing process changes the writer.
Here are some extracts from some reviews of If You Were Mine.
'Although all the main characters are women or young girls, their experiences are universal, and the result is an intensely human story about real people whose only fault is to love too much. The style is reminiscent of Niall Williams in his early books, down to the author's sympathetic treatment of her characters and the intermittent use of dreamy magic. The situations in which her characters find themselves provide Lefevre with ample opportunity to bombard the reader with social criticism of urban Ireland and rural Australia, but she avoids all such analysis, concentrating on the action of the story and allowing readers to make up their own minds.'' The Canberra Times
'The depressive elements never risk sinking this haunting novel. Lefevre measures lyricism with poignancy and If You Were Mine is a tender, resonant achievement.' The Australian
'Lefevre's achingly-beautiful prose resembles a musical score, leaving the reader wishing the song would never end. This is a story to savour, one to keep close to your heart. If You Were Mine is certainly one of the best Australian novels of the year.' The Independent Weekly
'The theme of mother loss has been well ploughed by novelists but Australian writer Carol Lefevre reaches a new poignancy in this beautifully written reflection straddling two countries.' Courier Mail
'Lefevre is good at the outback, especially at creating places of promise and potential within it, unlikely spaces where unexpected connections become possible.' Sydney Morning Herald
'This is a story of mothers and children, love, loss and the means of redemption. It's about ways of mothering and ways of being a child. Lefevre offers a powerful depiction of family and the world through the eyes of a child and has an extraordinary ability to write from their perspective without dipping into sentimentality. At times the sorrow is almost unbearable, but the author illuminates hidden corners of the heart with an always kindly light.' Notebook Magazine