Come Inside is a beautifully written, evocative novel told from many perspectives and over a long expanse of time. Despite the possibility of the rather slim volume becoming heavied by such a vast and varying platform, it remains light and unburdened in tone. The reader, or at least this reader, feels that GL Osborne knew what she wanted to do with her novel and wasn’t going to be swayed by thinking she had to tie details together or fill in gaps. Strangely however, this may be the very thing that leads some to view the story as too vaguely formed.
When a ship, The Lucy, sinks in seas lying along the southern coast of Australia in 1887, there’s one survivor, Mary Holland. Mary’s slow recovery in a local man’s hut is reported in the third person and told in an ephemeral, hazy manner giving the impression of someone re-emerging into consciousness. As Mary pieces things together: where she is, who is caring for her and what has happened, the narration tracks back and forth through time to when she was aboard the ship, maintaining its moody quality to the end.
The sheets are cool and white and crisp like paper. She lies between them like a word dropped between pages. She cannot tell how long she has been here, try as she does to remember. The cabin is like a hand over the mouth, even in thought. No name, no memory can rise under the weight of its dimness.
Running concurrently between these descriptions are vignettes from a variety of sources from the local community on whose shore the wreckage and Mary Holland washes up. The responses are recorded in a series of letters, newspaper articles and interviews, some of which have been recorded some seventy years later. They present an interesting historical image and drive forward the story as the town firstly laud the survivor, then wonder at her and finally come to cast aspersions about her, accusing her eventually of lying about her identity.
Entwined in the text is the first-person narrative of a young woman in more modern times. Although a sizeable portion of Osborne’s book, it remains unclear exactly when this character is writing. She works in the local museum where some of the artefacts from the sunken Lucy are kept. This part of the text is presented as if the character has written a manuscript and some of its pages, not always in chronological order, are being presented. Her life, like that of the survivor Mary Holland’s, seems marred by loss. Her younger stepsister has vanished without trace and while she holds suspicions about a certain local young boy’s involvement, there are never any clear pointers as to what has happened to Susanah.
I am reminded of how Daniel used to watch Susanah. I remember, too, how the day Daniel sat next to me in the bus going to Colego it was as though two people sat next to me – one the innocent younger brother, and the other someone much older, who looked out at me quite coldly through those ingenuous eyes, and who pressed his leg against mine as though trying to compel me to protest or to show him I was scared.
Where the book succeeds most is in Osborne’s ability to place her characters in suspended circumstances. They seem to be looking on at their situations in a ‘glazed-over’, post-trauma malaise. There is not so much a sense of recovery as a blow in life that will be forever written on their souls. Mary Holland appears to be recovering from her trauma but ultimately suffers a breakdown. Life for the young correspondents in the house where she’d been convalescing is disrupted irrevocably by her appearance. And the young, more modern narrator remains caught as the disappearance of her sister impacts on her, and she watches the lives of others: the wonderfully drawn town gardener, Peter Hazell, and the impish friend, Jessimo.
The common thread, which may also explain the title of the book, is the attempt of the characters to connect to the world around them. They seem misunderstood by those closest to them and have, to a great degree, lost their way because of it. Likewise the mysteries presented in the book – and I get the feeling purposely so – remain unsolved. The result is that a kind of floating sensation permeates until the very last word.