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?