Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Roving Party Review

Review by Carmel Bird of The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson.

This review is published in Australian Book Review - June 2011

Stories of the impact of European discovery, exploration, invasion and settlement on Australia are naturally a source of fascination to novelists. The microcosm of the island of Tasmania, with its cruel yet beautiful landscapes, and its unforgiving weather, offers these stories with a special kind of eerie horror. Against the landscape, the stories emerge both in concert and in counterpoint, describing the stains which forever disfigure and haunt the place. Tasmania was less a frontier in the American sense of the word, than a dead end.

Although the blood of indigenous Tasmanians still flows in the veins of many people, the principal narrative of the violent fracture and disappearance of the tribes is one of doom and destruction, and like many tales of the conflicts between outsiders and indigenous peoples, the stories are often inhabited by strange heroes and villains. The geography of the island ensures that the atmosphere is bleak, with a sense of terminal horror in the making (an atmosphere notably captured in the 2009 movie Van Diemen’s Land). The non-fiction works of such writers as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan have vividly documented this period, giving rise to what have been called the history wars between historians who believe the first Tasmanians suffered genocide at the hands of the British, and those who deny this interpretation of events. Fiction, of course, has licence to move into the realm of the imagination, taking inspiration from the apparent facts of history, and moving into the minds and hearts of characters, some of whom have been plucked from history, some of whom have been invented by writers.

This novel is set in the time when Governor Arthur was bringing in his draconian reforms to the colony, ensuring that Van Diemen’s Land was in fact the fiercest dictatorship in the world, an abyss, a hell on earth. In the course of the narrative, Arthur cancels the bounty he had put on the heads of members of indigenous tribes, so that the enterprise driving the group described as the ‘roving party’ who are hunting down the tribesmen, after days and nights of brutal and grotesque activity, is void. The historical figure that looms large in the story is John Batman who is (in the history books) seen as the villain who tricked the tribes of Port Phillip in Victoria into handing over the land on which Melbourne now stands. In The Roving Party Batman is still living in Van Diemen’s Land, leading a very small and motley group in search of native people for capture, involving also massacres. Batman’s group consists of a boy, four convicts, two black trackers, a farmhand, and Black Bill.

Black Bill is the conflicted central character. He sets up a literary echo of Joe Christmas in Light in August, being a black man brought up as white. The abiding motif of the book is smoke, and Black Bill lodges in the reader’s consciousness veiled in a wreath or cloud or smudge of smoke, as if his very being is veiled, ghostly. There are the campfires of the roving party, the pipes the men smoke, and frequently Black Bill scans the heavens for the smoke of tribal fires. At the heart of the narrative are his dreams in which he talks to his unborn child.

Although the whole book follows the party as they roam about the harsh forbidding landscape shooting people and dogs in detailed realistic scenes of graphic gore, there is a deep mythic level located within Black Bill. The novel opens with reference to his unspoken tribal name, a name he has ‘no good use for’, and ends as he whispers the ‘secret name’ of his dead baby son. He longs, at the end, for future dreams in which this dead son will visit him. There is a terrible beauty in this redemptive act of naming. The name ‘Black Bill’ is a nasty British nick-name, and in fact the character is more often designated by the narrative as ‘the Vandemonian’, the only character so named. It raises him to a grand status, yet marks him out for doom. The dead child works as a symbol of the obliteration of the tribes, for it (the mother says it was female, Black Bill says it was male) was in fact monstrously ill-formed and hopeless, like a vestigial gesture of nature. Yet for Black Bill and Katherine (the mother) it remains the spiritual link to themselves, and hence to the blood of the tribe. The baby’s body is incinerated at birth, and Katherine wears the polished skull ‘mooncoloured, pale and jawless’ on a cord around her neck. Bill cups the skull in his hands and whispers to it, ‘desolate of heart’.

If there is one adjective that would cover the story of the roving party it is that one – desolate. There is a catalogue of rapes and murders: ‘As he surveyed the great unbroken blackness circling the camp he was caught from behind by the hair and a broad winking blade cleaved his throat to the vertebra.’ And against this relentless bone-splitting, blood-letting savagery, swirls the sad lyricism of: ‘Bereft of their women and children the clansmen crossed their clanhold at a pace and progressed along the frontier as if they were as insubstantial as the stays of mistfilled light between the silver wattles.’

It comes as no surprise that this grim and astonishing novel was chosen as the winner of this year’s Vogel award. END

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Raf the Dog

Raf the Dog

Published in Meanjin, June 2011

‘All knowledge – the totality of all questions and answers – is contained in the dog.’

Franz Kafka from ‘Investigations of the Dog’.

In the seventeenth century Cervantes wrote a story called ‘The Conversation of Dogs’. It consisted of the midnight conversation between two dogs as overheard by the narrator of the story. And long before that, in the fifth century BC the fables of Aesop recorded the wit, wisdom and character traits of the animals. In more recent times there are the tales of Beatrix Potter and the works of Lewis Carroll. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban is a brilliant modern example of the tradition. Talking animals are most often found in stories for children, although famous examples of adult works in the genre are by Orwell, Chekov and Woolf. Recently Andrew O’Hagan published The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe which is written by a maltese belonging to the star.

The world is probably divided into two kinds of people, those who like books by dogs and those who don’t. I do. I loved the idea of O’Hagan’s book when I first heard of it, and I was utterly captivated by the reading, thrilled by the wit, energy and rhythm of the writing. The reflections of Maf are superb insights into America in the early sixties, as well as into big subjects such as literature, art, psychology, history and politics. This is philosophy at its most engaging. The view Maf gives of Marilyn is unlike any other, and is ultimately a most lucid and moving one. He can read her mind, and there is a point at which she can read his. He is so wise and wistful, she so fragile and doomed. On the one hand this book is a revelation about all the dogs in literature and art, and on the other it is a novel of profound and highly entertaining insight into the human heart.

It is this novel that has given me the courage to tell the story of

‘Raf the Dog – a Tale of Mystery, Money and the Supernatural’.

Many years ago when I was living in the city I felt the need for a companion in the form of a small white dog. My daughter is an expert at finding cats and dogs for humans, so she was on the case, preferring to give homes to rescued dogs rather than get brand new ones. We investigated several shelters, but to no avail. I grew tired of the hunt and finally decided to buy a new puppy. The price of course began at around $400. This was not going to be easy. Taking a common sense approach I went to the local credit union and opened a special purpose account.

‘What is the purpose?’ asked the teller, not looking up from her keyboard.

‘I am buying a dog.’

There was a sudden burst of sunlight that radiated instantly from within the teller. Her gold bracelets jangled, her spectacles winked, her lovely teeth gleamed at me with pleasure.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘a dog! What kind of dog?’

‘A maltese.’

‘Oh yes! Yes. They are so beautiful. So sweet. So wise and wistful. You are doing the right thing.’

So I did the right thing and deposited some idiotically small amount of money in the account which was recorded as being ‘For Purchase of Dog’.

Project Dog was under way.

When I got home there was a message on the phone from my daughter.

It said:

‘I have your dog. Call me.’

This was like the message left by a dognapper. Alarming and horrible.

With pounding heart I called back and she told me she was out at the RSPCA with a sad little maltese in her arms. I rushed out to see him, and there he was, a tiny, bewildered, skin and bone creature in a blue knitted jacket staring up at me with big brown eyes. Wise? Yes. Wistful? Oh yes. Love at first sight. He had been abandoned in an outer suburb, and had somehow survived long enough to be rescued. I bought him, and two days later was able to take him home. My daughter likes to name animals, and she named him Rafael, after the Archangel. I took him to visit the lady at the credit union and she lit up all over again.

‘The Archangel!’ she cried.

He has many charming ways, but one of his rather tedious habits consists of sniffing and grubbing vigorously under scruffy bushes by the side of the road. Once he came out of the bush having divested himself of his fancy overcoat. A Superman moment. And another time, having been busily grubbing, he emerged from the bush with something in his mouth. It was a mobile phone.

I took the phone home and worked out how to contact the owner. She said she would come round in a few minutes and collect the phone. Before long she was jogging down the front path, ponytail flying, sunglasses on top of her head, pink lycra and silver trainers flashing in the sun.

‘Hi, I’m Samsara.’ She was bouncing on the spot. I kind of understood how the phone had ended up in the bush.

I said hello and held out the phone. Without a break in the bouncing, she reached out and swept the phone from my palm.

‘Thanks,’ she said, and was gone, bouncing off up the garden path and out the gate.

I never heard from her again. Her name is from Sanskrit, and Wikipedia says it ‘refers to a place, set of objects and possessions, but originally referred to a process of continuous pursuit of flow of life.’ Well, she did seem to be in continuous pursuit of that flow, down the garden path and up again. Did I receive a card, a note, an email, a text? Roses? Champagne? Right, I did not.

A few years later I decided to sell the house in the city and move to the backblocks. There would be an auction. There would be Open For Inspection. On the first day of the inspections I planned, as is proper, to be far away from the house. However that morning my computer packed up, and just before the inspectors were due to arrive, the technician came, so when the people were looking over the house, I was in the study with the tech and the computer. I was trying to pay no attention to what was going on behind me, but suddenly a voice said:

‘Hi, remember me, I’m Samsara.’

Sure enough, there she was, her ponytail intact, her clothes more sober, and in her arms a baby, at her feet a child, behind her a husband. She recalled the incident of the mobile, and then they all moved on, mingling with the other visitors. Were they serious? Well I didn’t hang around on the other Open for Inspection days, but always on the list of people the name Samara would appear.

On auction day, going, going, gone, Samsara bought the house.

No roses, no champagne, just a cheque for the deposit, balance due in sixty days.

How the spectacles of the lady at the credit union sparkled and twinkled. How she clapped her hands and rattled her bracelets.

‘What a dog!’ she said. ‘What a dog!’

Monday, May 2, 2011

little people review

Review by Carmel Bird

of novel Little People by Jane Sullivan

This is a prize-winning novel, runner-up in the 2010 CAL-Scribe Fiction prize for a novel by a writer over 35 years of age. It blends the powerful theme of dogged maternal love with the extraordinary world of P.T.Barnum’s freak shows. I once visited the circus museum in San Antonio, Texas, and for a long time I looked in amazement at the exquisite miniature carriage of General Tom Thumb. So delicate, so doll-like, so sad. The sight of it brought home to me the everyday reality of the strange life of a human being who was not just from another time, but from a branch of the human race that had fashioned a form of success out of disability and adversity.

The novel, a darkly romantic fairytale with fantastic elements of nineteenth century gothic is set in Australia in 1870. The central character is Mary Ann who starts out, Bronte-like, as a governess, but with something more Dickensian-grotesque lying in wait for her. Pregnant to the father of her charges, she desperately seeks an abortion in the hideous back streets of Melbourne. When she is unable to go through with it she finds herself in the river where she rescues someone who appears to be a drowning child. This person is, however, none other than Tom Thumb, the world famous circus dwarf who is touring the country with his troupe. Mary Ann has fallen into very strange company indeed. Is she safe, or has she descended from the frying pan into the fire?

In an historical note the author explains that the troupe did visit Australia for a nine-month tour in 1870, and that Mary Ann’s story is, however, pure fiction. The two elements of history and fiction are woven together to produce the fabric of the action-filled story. The novel unfolds in chapters that are narrated by Mary Ann, while there are occasional sections narrated by other characters, namely the various midgets. (The correct term ‘pituitary dwarfism’ is given in the historical note, but not used in the body of the text.) Each section, presented as a ‘sideshow’, is prefaced by a black and white photograph of the relevant midget. The pictures are poignant, as well as beguiling and fascinating in themselves. While they are a respectable post-modern device, I found them disconcerting. For they constantly reminded me of the factual world of the troupe, when I was actually following the ups and downs of the imagined saga of Mary Ann. The author in her note is frank about the distinctions she drew between the history and the fiction, but the appearance of photographs of the ‘real’ characters somehow serves to undermine the ‘reality’ I desired for the characters of invention. A reader is willing to be swept up in the world of fiction, and to be pulled back with a reminder that it is only fiction after all sets up an interference and a tension that do not serve the tale which is in this case building to a climax way beyond reality.

Water is a dominant motif throughout, Mary Ann frequently being characterised as mermaid-like, with Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Mermaid” threading its way through the story in ways that are sometimes part of romance, and sometimes part of something very ominous. Mary Ann is a ragged Madonna figure. There is a sense of impending doom and disaster that Mary Ann can’t quite put her finger on, but it dogs her as she valiantly battles to survive and to guard the life of her unborn child. Hideous images of the so-called mermaids that used to be exhibited in museums and freak shows lurk in the muddy gloom that swirls through the narrative, seemingly waiting to swallow up Mary Ann and her baby.

The unborn child is central to the novel’s plot, and it has the dangerous quality of someone messianic. Tom Thumb puts round the story that the child is his, conceived by some kind of electrical magnetism when he and Mary Ann were struggling for survival in the river.

The nine month period of the midgets’ time in Australia is beautifully apt for the gestation of the baby, the progression of the pregnancy lending the novel much of its suspense. The reader is never able to forget that Mary Ann is pregnant. Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia are also focused on this fact. Childless, the couple are known to borrow babies to dandle in photographs, and there is a deep shuddering fear that they are planning to kidnap Mary Ann’s baby and abandon Mary Ann. With a touching simplicity and innocence, Mary Ann is unable to believe that such wickedness could really be. For she retains, through thick and thin, the blameless perseverance of a Jane Eyre type. But will she win through? Can she, in this bewildering world where good and evil blend like blood and milk in water, can she ever work out who is her Mr Rochester? The reader can see, for the clues are consistently planted, but Mary Ann is blind to her destiny, and herein lies her almost fatal error.

The final section of the novel takes off rather like an episode of Dr Who, and builds to the wild conclusion, with all the elements coming together to amaze the reader. At the very beginning Mary Ann said she had ‘no idea how dangerous the world could be’. How right she was.