Monthly Archives: June 2009

‘Ice’ by Louis Nowra

nowra

2008, 322 p.

I’ve now finished  the final of the Miles Franklin shortlist for 2009- a shortlist this year dominated by the literary bulls of Australian literature (Winton, Flanagan, Nowra, Bail and Tsiolkas).  I don’t know whether to be assured that the shortlist is truly gender-blind by not including a token female writer, or whether to snort that SURELY one of the many books published by female writers must have qualified.

I think this is the one amongst the shortlist  that I enjoyed reading the most.  At first it seems to be a straight fictionalized biography of Malcolm McEacharn,  a colonial entrepreneur responsible for the refrigerated meat export trade among other things.   Nowra has used some fictional licence here, but sticks fairly closely to McEacharn’s biography.  A shy, diffident man, McEacharn’s mother remarried and shifted to India, leaving him as a young worker to find his own way in the world. He falls in love with Ann, a bewitching beautiful girl. When she dies, he is maddened by grief, and the rest of his life- apparently successful with money, clothes, mansions, political influence- is just a series of layers with his love for Ann at its core.

Running parallel to this is the present-day voice of Rowan Doyle, likewise maddened sitting beside his comatose wife, who had been writing a biography of McEacharn when she sustained catastrophic injuries when attacked by a crazed ice addict.  Doyle picks up the story, based on her research, but embues it with his own feelings of grief and loss, and finds himself unable to stop writing because it is his last contact with his wife.

This juxtaposition of death/coma and ‘ice’ in its many manifestations is deliberate, self-conscious and a little laboured at times, but I found myself drawn into the sorrow and obsessive love in the book and was in tears by the end of it.  The modern narrative breaks in at unexpected places, and because the biography itself is a product- their joint product, already researched with its ending known- there is quite a bit of foreshadowing.

Louis Nowra was interviewed on RN’s ‘Book Show’ and made this comment about biography and historians:

Louis Nowra: The interesting thing about all this is that I don’t believe you can know anybody after two generations. What I’m saying is if I write about an historical character…I really don’t know Malcolm. All I know is these papers that I’ve read and a couple of interviews that he did. I have a kind of a vague idea about him. So really the novel is not an historical fiction. What I’m attempting to do is almost parody historical fiction. I’m not saying this is the real Malcolm, I’m saying this is Rowan’s version. No one can possibly know about people more then 50 years into the past, I think…

Ramona Koval: So you’re talking about straight history as well?

Louis Nowra: I think straight history is fine, but once you start to second-guess characters, once historians start to identify with a character, I think you become very much on slippery ground. Like my grandparents, for example, I have learned a lot about their lives when I wrote my first memoir. At the same time, they are tremendously vague for me because I don’t have their values, I don’t have their sense of morality and I don’t have their sense of how they fought so hard for money. So I cannot judge them. And the same is with historians. I actually think that sometimes there’s a bit of flimflam that goes on.

Through his character Rowan, Nowra (hah! an anagram!!) backs away from claiming ‘truth’ from his writing.  He tells his comatose wife that he’s found extra information to add to her already-completed  research; he reads her research notes and moulds them into an explanation that is more consonant with his own emotional response to grief, rather than a straight biographical account.

And as Nowra says in this interview, ‘Ice’ is very much a love story and a meditation on the narrow line that divides love from obsession.  It’s not unlike ‘Wanting’, one of the other Miles Franklin shortlist for 2009, but it’s more tender in its approach.  I hope it wins, although I suspect that ‘The Slap’ will win, and that ‘Wanting’ should win.  But I can always hope, can’t I?

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

the-slap-by-christos-tsiolkas

2008, 483p.

It’s doing well, this one.  Plans for a television series; won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.   The Miles Franklin is awarded for any ‘published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases’ .  [An aside: I hadn’t realized that a play could win it.]  Certainly, The Slap portrays Australian life of  the backyard barbeque of inner-ish  suburb of Northcote, Melbourne in the 2000s in all its domestic, self-absorbed, middle class glory.  When one of the fathers slaps an obnoxious four-year old he triggers off much tut-tutting amongst the witnesses that ripples out into broader questions of discipline, family loyalty, abuse, friendship, class, religion, ethnicity, suburbs- the lot.  Everyone’s here- the yuppie bayside suburb Greek boy made good; his cousin married to the Indian vet; the Sex-and-the-City writer who wants to do more than write soap opera scripts; the earth mother and her drop kick partner; the young gay adolescent boy struggling with his sexuality; the Greek grandfather; the Aboriginal muslim and his Aussie wife.  Yep- I think that covers every inner-city suburban stereotype we need.

The book is told in long chapters written from the perspective, but not in the voice of,  people who were at the barbeque and witnessed the slap.  For some, it was just that- a spur of the moment slap to a child behaving badly; for others it was a violation of the rights of the child and his parents; others saw it as a criminal act; yet others as an unspoken manifestation of other domestic violence.   These chapters work well: they are long enough for a reader to shift into the character’s mindset, and because they move forward chronologically, they keep the plot unspooling.

There are actually two slaps- or at least physical encounters with this same little brat-  in this story, each bookending the first and last chapters of the book, and yet we don’t see them in the same way- largely because of  the other knowledge we have gleaned about the characters along the way.   Much of this other knowledge is fairly unattractive.  It uncovers infidelity, jealousy, class envy, prejudice, vindictiveness, self-centredness  and dishonesty. To be fair, it also uncovers loyalty to family and loyalty to friends, but even these things look rather shabby and unhealthy too.

Gerard Windsor reviewed this book in the Sydney Morning Herald where he described this book as “a strikingly tender book”. I didn’t see it this way.  I think it’s a jaundiced book, populated with human, recognizable but ultimately unlovely people.  I’m not convinced that it’s high literature: it smacks of the four-part miniseries- almost like Big Brother in the Backyard.  Perhaps the same sense of voyeurism is what keeps you reading, to find out what people just like you are going to do in this situation.

As a Port Phillip District resident, I enjoyed reading about my Melbourne home town.  The Heidelberg Court House is just down the road,  I know the streets that he’s talking about.  I know these people too. As  inner suburban, middle class, university-educated, chardonnay-sipping Melburnites older than 25, we’ve met them all one way or another.  It truly is “Australian life in its 2008 phase”, but somehow I think I’ll feel a bit short-changed if it wins the Miles Franklin.  Is “reality reading” (like reality television), authentic and identifiable as it is, the same as “literature”? I’m not sure.