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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 – three first novels, Notorious by Roberta Lowing, Night Street by Kristel Thornell and Utopian Man by Lisa Lang, and one second novel, Bereft by Chris Womersley – then I’d say Australian fiction is haunted, preoccupied with the past. 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.’
As well as her talent for depicting intense psychological states, Lowing has an uncanny ability to evoke the natural world, such as in this beautiful observation: ‘The sun has burned a white hole in the sky. It is the moon.’ I could think of no better praise for Notorious than Lowing’s own description of the glass house in Sicily: ‘the lines distorted, recklessly, crazily, with a supreme confidence I had only ever seen in the most headstrong art’. This is a daring, headstrong and supremely confident first novel, as commanding and mesmerising as the desert that lies at its centre.
The essence of Kristel Thornell’s Night Street is contained in its epigraph from Daniel Keene’s Two Shanks: ‘To be alone seems at once so natural and yet so unnatural I’ve never understood it.’ Thornell’s Clarice Beckett – Thornell makes it clear in an author’s note that her Clarice is not the historical Clarice Beckett but her ‘imagining of her’ – is a solitary woman, passionately committed to her painting in an era when women were meant to confine their passionate commitment to men, marriage and children.
Thornell writes Clarice’s life in the manner of her paintings: her mostly third-person portrait is subtle, suggestive and soft-edged. She writes perceptively about Clarice’s art and desire, and their interconnectedness: ‘Both art and love are openness, the lowering of the walls that protect us from the world. Also, true, perhaps, that art and love are forms of absurd hope in the face of tragedy and banality.’ And she portrays the disregard of early twentieth-century Melbourne society for Clarice’s art and for the fact she is a woman who paints. As Clarice says to one suitor who intimates that her art is a hobby: ‘I don’t paint in my spare time. When I’m not painting, that is my spare time.’ Her patron, Mrs Hamlin – whose manners are ‘as velvety and intense as her dress’ – tells Clarice that ‘Men will be alarmed, because you can do such things and you’re beautiful, also, which will confuse them.’
After a brief period studying and living away from home with her younger sister, Clarice moves in with her parents in Beaumaris and becomes their housekeeper and carer, her painting restricted to the early morning and late afternoons. Thornell probes beneath this apparently ordinary life to paint a vivid picture of a determined and unconventional woman who single-mindedly pursues her art, demonstrating that although little happens in Clarice’s life, hers is nevertheless a full life, ‘dense with work for which her paintings would have to speak, if they could’.
Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man is more overtly concerned with the politics and economic climate of its day, given its subject is the politically engaged idealist and businessman Edward Cole. Utopian Man opens on Melbourne Cup Day in 1883 with the grand launch of Cole’s three-storey Book Arcade in Melbourne’s Bourke Street. The English Cole was drawn to Australia by the gold rush, and his success on the goldfields – in circumstances which haunt him throughout his life – allows him to establish himself as a merchant and later to realise his dream of opening a bookshop. Cole believes in books and in their power to change the world. As a young man he had an epiphany in a public library: feeling crushed by his ignorance and poverty before the library’s radiant abundance, Cole had turned to leave – but on his way out noticed a plaque with the words, ‘For the people of this city’. In that moment he realised he was allowed to read any book he liked: ‘Nothing was stopping him. Nothing! The power of this thought was dizzying: the world spread before him … Now he hopes, more than anything, that the Arcade will be a place of wonder, of generosity and small revelations.’ For Edward Cole, books are adventures.
Utopian Man charts Cole’s rise to the heights of Melbourne society and the rise of Melbourne itself, from a town rich on gold to a city of paper wealth, of land speculators and investors, rife with opium dens, séances and sexual innuendo. As his book empire expands it becomes a sort of fun fair, with a brass band, monkeys, a fernery, a Chinese tea room staffed by Chinese waiters, and cane chairs so customers can read in comfort without being pressured to buy. Cole also installs a printing press, publishing his own books and pamphlets to promote his enlightened views on the dangers of smoking, the foolishness of fashion and the superficiality of racial differences (‘The Real Causes of Colour in Mankind’). He is a humanitarian with a vision of a just and equal society, and a complete disregard for what people think of him. He opposes in word and deed the racism that is unleashed with the economic downturn following the property collapse of 1893. And he is vehemently opposed to the first emergence of the White Australia Policy – the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 – one of first acts of new national parliament: his ‘joy at Federation now tainted by this push for White Australia, this backward move towards some tribal unity’. Cole’s friend Alfred Deakin, like politicians before and after him, walks ‘the thin line between populism and prejudice, not saying the Chinese are bad, but denying their rights all the same’.
Lang first heard the story of Edward Cole during the Howard years and the ‘children overboard’ affair. She was struck by his energy and indifference to public opinion and convention – and she has captured these qualities brilliantly and joyously in her fictional portrayal of Cole. Utopian Man brings to life Cole’s enthusiasm and generosity, and his courage in speaking his unpopular opinions, risking the disgust of the public on whom his business depends. It is a novel of rare optimism.
Chris Womersley’s Bereft opens abruptly with the event that drives the action of the novel: ‘On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales and unleashed itself on the fly-speck town of Flint.’ This is a beautifully measured novel of murder and revenge, profound loss, and the possibility of faith and courage. The times are bleak. An Australian soldier, Quinn Walker, returns home in 1919 from the Great War – summonsed through a spirit medium and intent on avenging his sister’s murder, for which he is accused. He is disfigured from the war and finds his homeland equally disfigured, filled with fear and suspicion, stricken with influenza, ‘As if a war were not enough for the world to endure.’
As with Notorious and Utopian Man, Bereft is about the power of books and language. Quinn’s mother Mary, who lies dying from influenza, says: ‘Do you know Quinn, there isn’t even a word for a parent who has lost a child? … You would think, after all these centuries of war and disease and trouble, but no, there is a hole in the English language.’ Mary Walker has retreated into books from the barren town of Flint, a former mining town which now lies wasted. She credits books for ‘not quite saving my life, of course, but something close to it. A good story is like medicine, in my opinion.’
Bereft is also a story about the power of faith, love and the imagination in an era when faith is breaking down, when ‘God is not watching us’. And the incarnation of this faith is Sadie Fox, a young girl who happens upon Quinn in the bush where he hides from the town that calls him ‘the Murderer’. Sadie helps him to realise that ‘With faith, with imagination and love … one could transform anything into something.’ Sadie is vividly drawn: ‘Now she was upright, Quinn could see she was a bony cat of a girl, all angles and joints.’ And her childish games and belief in charms and magic talismans return Quinn to life: ‘the girl actually had faith in something which was more than most people had in these dark times’.
Why this preoccupation with the past? The past is more coherent than the present and in these novels it also illuminates our times: times of apocalyptic fear (Bereft), questions about the place of women and artists (Night Street), and of racism and debates about Australia’s connection to Asia (Utopian Man). Despite the accomplishment of Bereft, Night Street and Utopian Man and the insights they offer into twenty-first-century Australia, for me Roberta Lowing’s Notorious is the most exciting of these four novels, the most ambitious, the most astonishing.