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Haunted tales

‘If it is possible to assess the current state of Australian literature through a reading of four novels published in late September and October 2010,’ says Overland’s new fiction editor and friend of literature everywhere, Jane Gleeson-White, ‘then I’d say Australian fiction is haunted, preoccupied with the past.’

In ‘Haunted tales’ (Overland 201), Gleeson-White pulls up a chair next to the fireplace of contemporary Australian fiction, reviewing three first novels, Notorious by Roberta Lowing, Night Street by Kristel Thornell and Utopian Man by Lisa Lang, and Chris Womersley’s second novel, Bereft:

Only one of these four novels, Notorious, also embraces the present. And Night Street and Utopian Man, co-winners of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award, are derived from the lives of two significant Australian cultural figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, entrepreneurial booklover Edward Cole (1832–1918) and Melbourne painter Clarice Beckett (1887–1935). Three of these novels are also, intriguingly, concerned with books and their almost supernatural powers (and Night Street is concerned with the power of art). Here in our relativistic, post-Christian era is fiction as history and the book as an article of faith.

Roberta Lowing’s Notorious is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel. It opens in the recent past in a taxi in rural winter Poland. Lowing is a poet and it tells in her prose, which is fierce, exact and sensuous: ‘I looked through the ice-sheathed gates to the black jagged trees and the clumps of snow ribbed by black Polish earth.’ And the novel’s female protagonist is as fierce as its prose:

I held out my cuffed hands. ‘Can you make these tighter?’

He stared at me.

I said, ‘Make them hurt.’

Notorious is a fractured narrative told in several voices that reaches from Rimbaud’s desert wanderings in 1890 to the Iraq War of the twenty-first century. In an asylum at Abu N’af near Casablanca – an asylum in which the French poet Rimbaud once sought refuge – a woman lies dying. She has walked out of the desert, her impossible survival without water or maps a mystery to those who care for her: the poetry-loving exiled Frenchman René Laforche and the enigmatic nun Sister Antony. Into this sanctuary comes a jaded Australian Embassy official, John Devlin, who has been sent to interrogate the nameless woman.

The novel’s seven central characters are haunted by the past and by a book: the diary Rimbaud wrote in the desert in 1890, which contains secrets people kill to possess and which has brought stupendous wealth to two families, one Australian, the other the aristocratic Polish Walenzskas. Through this diary, John Devlin and the dying woman are connected to a Polish penitent seeking to unburden himself in the rugged wilds of Sicily in 1952, who is linked to a mother and son who live in a Frank Gehry-inspired glass house in present day Sicily, and a robed woman in Casablanca in 1978. With the fragments of Devlin’s accounts, third person narratives and the diaries of the dying woman, Lowing constructs a gripping, labyrinthine thriller which unfolds against brutal and beautiful landscapes – the desert, the mountains of Sicily, the jungle of Borneo, the streets of Casablanca.

Lowing was a film reviewer for twenty-three years and set out to write a novel with the intensity and romantic tension of a Hitchcock film. She has succeeded: Notorious is a page-turning thriller, and a passionate and perverse love story. But it is more than a thriller, more than a romance. It is also a story about family, inheritance and revenge, and a meditation on the desert as geographic and symbolic space, as conduit to ‘the great silence, the chance of the divine’. In Notorious the desert is the source not only of human redemption, but redemption of the earth itself: ‘It is only when man loves the desert for what it is that the earth will be saved.’

Read ‘Haunted tales’ in its entirety.

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