All Four Quarters of the Moon by Shirley Marr
What a truly wonderful novel this is! I urge everyone, young and old, to read it. It tells the story of a Chinese family of five (two parents, two children and one grandmother) who leave their home in Singapore and begin a new life in Australia, not knowing a word of English. The affection Marr shows for her characters is understandable, as they are based on her own family, who moved to Australia in similar circumstances.
The book opens just before the move. The two sisters, Peijing and Biju, 11 and 6 respectively (in real life Marr and her sister were a little younger and the age gap between them was less) are playing with Little World. This is a cardboard box which they fill with drawings of various creatures and features of landscape. “It had started as a small act of defiance when Peijing would draw in the columns of her workbooks when she should be doing homework.” Ma Ma considers time taken creating pictures ill-spent. The sisters believe their world is a secret known only to themselves, but periodically an Extinction occurs. Beijing knows it was Ma Ma who was responsible for the Extinctions. On the big day of departure comes the worst Extinction. “There was nothing left in the box.”
The sisters take the box with them, nevertheless, and begin to repopulate it once settled in their new Australian home.
What is so impressive about this novel? Firstly, the relationship between Peijing and Biju. Although Peijing is the older, it is Biju who drives the girls’ imaginative, escapist play, by telling stories based on Chinese folklore. Secondly, the adult members of the family are vividly portrayed. Ma Ma resists the western lifestyle and yearns to return to Singapore to rejoin the extended Chinese family. Ba Ba — a workaholic employed by an architectural office — works five days a week instead of seven (one of the main motivations for the move of country) but otherwise shows little inclination to assimilate. Things change when Ah Ma, the grandmother, begins to act unpredictably and the family have to consider moving her into a home. Ba Ba takes some extended leave and spends more time with the girls. The change in the family’s circumstances and their slow accommodation to Australian life is expertly handled…