By Drusilla ModjeskaNon-fictionKnopf

Second Half First

Beginning with the disastrous events of the night before her fortieth birthday, in Second Half First Drusilla Modjeska looks back on the experiences of the past thirty years that have shaped her writing, her reading and the way she has lived.

From a childhood in England, and her parents’ difficult marriage, to her time as a young newlywed living with her husband in Papua New Guinea; arriving as a single woman in Sydney in the 1970s and building close friendships with writers such as Helen Garner, with whom she lived in the bookish ‘house on the corner’, and the lovers who would – sometimes briefly – derail her, to returning to Papua thirty years later to found a literacy program, this new book by Drusilla Modjeska is an intensely personal and moving account of an examined life.

In asking the candid questions that so many of us face – about love and independence, the death of a partner, growing older, the bonds of friendship and family – Drusilla Modjeska reassesses parts of her life, her work, the importance to her of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, among many others. The result is a memoir that is at once intellectually provocative and deeply honest; the book that readers of Poppy, The Orchard and Stravinsky’s Lunch have been waiting for.

Portrait of Drusilla Modjeska

Drusilla Modjeska

Drusilla Modjeska is one of Australia's most acclaimed writers. She was born in England but lived in Papua before arriving in Australia in 1971. Her books include Exiles at Home; the NSW Premier's Award-winning Poppy; Sisters, which she co-edited; the Nita B. Kibble, NSW Premier's Award and Australian Bookseller's Book of the Year Award-winner The Orchard; Timepieces; and Secrets with Robert Dessaix and Amanda Lohrey. She is also the author of the bestselling Stravinsky's Lunch and her first novel, The Mountain, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, the Western Australia Premier's Award and the Barbara Jefferis Award.

Judges’ report

This memoir begins on the eve of its author’s fortieth birthday and follows her from house to house, lover to lover, book to book.

But far from being a linear, comprehensive account of her life since forty, Modjeska’s telling casts forwards and back and – she lets us know – elides some parts too tender to lay bare. Friendship figures as her life’s sustaining force; that and books. Reflections on the lives and work of Virginia Woolf, Christina Stead and others run as a counterpoint to Modjeska’s own life and work.

In Second Half First, musings on women and men, love, death, friendship and family repeat and recur, in unforced rhythm with a life in progress. Modjeska’s writing is heartfelt, moving, exploratory, revealing even in moments of discretion, always engaging. In the company so many memoirs, this one stands out as an exemplar.


Afterwards, in the car as Robyn and I drove down the mountains and through the suburbs of Sydney that now follow the railway line all the way to their base, I told her about the day Garry and I were cut off by the tide. We were down the coast, alone at the house on the bay with the rock. It was glorious autumnal weather, the water wasn’t yet too cold to swim, and after a few days of lazing, we felt adventurous and set out around the rocks beneath the headland with the lighthouse. It was a fine day, as I say, clear to the horizon, when we walked round the bay and climbed to the next cove, using a steep, well-worn path. Instead of stopping there, as we usually did, or going back to check the tides it wasn’t as if we didn’t know how large the headland was, or how steep we decided, just like that, on impulse, to see if we could get the whole way round. Two hours later and still nowhere near the point, we were in a small cove with a narrow shingle beach, wet from a wave that’d caught us on the rocky cliff we’d just clambered round. We sat on the shingle to dry, pleased with ourselves, not noticing that the tide was coming in until we had to jump out of the way, and saw that waves were breaking against the cliff we’d come from, and also against the one ahead. White foam against black rock in either direction. Behind us, what was left of the shingle ended against a sandstone cliff, not sheer or overhanging like the black cliffs, but steep, very, with some dark rock poking through, a few hardy wisps of trees hanging on. It was a long way up, but it was our only option: the shingly beach was fast vanishing, there’d be no shelter unless we climbed up above the tide line, which, now that   we looked, we could see quite clearly. There was nothing to stand on there, and the prospect of clinging on all day until the tide turned again was less promising than the prospect of climbing. We should be able to make it, Garry said, though I was doubtful, and he started to climb in a slightly zigzag way, reaching from protrusion of rock to spindly tree, finding the next foothold as I followed behind, until suddenly it was too steep; there wasnothing to hold onto, and the top wasn’t close. Chunks of crumbling sandstone were coming loose and tumbling down. I can’t, I said, as if there were a choice. You can, he said, climbing on, balancing himself and turning back to tell me where to put my  foot,  where  I  could safely hold on, testing the strength of a small, bent tree that was growing out of the cliff not far from the top. I got there. I don’t know how, but I did. He hauled himself up the last few feet to the grass at the top, lay on his stomach, and with one hand on another of those spindly trees, reached down an arm strong as rope. One last haul, and I was beside him, as alive as the grass we lay on, the trees above. The sky. A tremble started in my legs, a shaking, shuddering tremble that spread to my arms, my chest, everywhere, as I looked back down to the rocks, the little beach that had vanished and the water where we could well both be lying, dead and broken. No one would have known, it was back before mobile phones, and who would think we’d be stupid enough to have done what we did.

Lying there on the ground, alive and shaking, we wrapped our arms around each other, and when our legs returned to a state that would hold us upright, we walked slowly through the gnarled banksia trees to the lighthouse, which I always visit even if it is a modern lighthouse with no window or walkway, no keeper, nothing of character or romance, nothing like Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse: just a white smooth tower marking a line in the bush. We walked around it in superstitious thanksgiving, then back to the house, where we made huge toasted sandwiches and spent the rest of the day recovering on  blanket under the trees until the sun went over the hills behind and the cold crept in. A fire, fish on the grill, a bottle of wine. Was that not enough? In memory it is replete. So why, after something like that, did I want Garry to say that yes, he’d love me forever and make sure I never fell, and I needn’t give up anything, not my independence, not even Ben who arrived one of those years and whom I’m not yet ready to talk about. I could be just as I was and safe. Double standards? Yes. But double standards work in strange ways; for Garry, with all that Zen, no commitment beyond the moment worked just fine; but    for me, while it could, it didn’t always. It was, of course, when we enjoyed each other most that I wanted the words he wouldn’t give. As if the words could turn into a certificate I could hold in my hand, absolve me from my own infelicities, or an artwork I could walk around, or a fine pen that would know my thoughts even before they arrived on the page.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist