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Fiction reviews

 

Colin Golvan - Theatre Daze; Janet Shaw - In This House; Leone Sperling - Oasis; Rosie Scott - Nights With Grace

3 September 1990

Theatre Daze
Colin Golvan
Allen & Unwin

In This House
by Janet Shaw
Heinemann

Oasis
by Leone Sperling
Heinemann

Nights With Grace
Rosie Scott
Heinemann



Published in The Australian


It was recently suggested - to notable lack of applause - that Australian fiction is lagging behind our non-fiction. Certainly, in the last year, none of the novels I have reviewed come within coo-ee of John Pilger's passionate, biased, fact-laden A Secret Country - at least on the criteria of that book's challenging view of our national condition, the elegance of its prose, and its ability to enrage the Establishment.

Still, the contenders keep coming, and coming. Here are four more: three drones and, mercifully, a Queen. First the drones.

The hero of Theatre Daze, Roger - "a bit of a prick", Colin Golvan tells us - writes a play, The Perfect Moment. The otherwise unproduceable script fills a need for the Melbourne Rep Company: it enables it to get another big cheque out of the Australia Council. Roger's agent and director demand re-writes, pay him nothing, and treat him like dirt. As an Australian writer, I would be the last to challenge the realism of this. However the story is, unhappily, rushed and one-dimensional.

Golvan gets into his scenes late, and out early. Whilst this is perfectly reasonable for dramatists, it is not what novel-writing is all about. The satire, like nearly all Australian literary satire, is predictable: the director is an over-worked mediocrity, the agent slick, gay and venal, and the girl living upstairs from Roger, of course, unbelievably beautiful.

The play - transformed into a Japanese Noh work - shocks everyone by becoming a smash. The book will not, Noh or no Noh.

All the Colours, the first story in Janet Shaw's collection, is about a very young girl, Trish, whose mother spends so much time arguing with her boyfriend that Trish begins an innocent friendship with the old man next door. Her mother, before long, hauls her angrily away from him. Whilst the story may affirm our urban despair, it offers no new insight into it.

The title story describes how another hapless young girl, Beth, is tyrannised by a drunken shrew - her older sister, Margaret. (They live together alone.) In the first two pages Margaret shouts at Beth; orders her to clean up the cat's mess, wash the dishes, and do the shopping; stubs her cigarette out in Beth's saucer; almost chokes her; accuses her of bed-wetting, and stealing her brandy; chases the cat from the house; spits into the sink; then departs for a night on the town.

Needless to say, the action is a little overdone, and the characterisation shallow. The same can be said of the collection as a whole.


Oasis by Leone Sperling (don't get her mixed up with Linda Spalding) consists of "three interlinked novellas exploring the strands of one woman's life and her ability to love". Unfortunately it is afflicted by the same glibness as the previous two books. In the beginning, the boyfriend of the heroine (Sophie) decides to leave her:




"What about me? What's going to happen to me?"

He couldn't handle that. "I'm going to stay at my mother's for a while," he said, picking up his laundry basket. "I want to give you back this cassette player."

"I don't want it back," she screamed. Sophie had only given it to him the week before. It was a nice radio-cassette. She'd given it to him as an early birthday present, to cheer him up because he seemed depressed.

"Living here was like being in a huge, warm womb," he said.



The remainder of the book, though similarly endowed with cliche, tautology and pedestrian prose, does at least build Sophie into real, if uninteresting, person.

These three books all canvass worthwhile themes: marketing and corruption in the theatre world, the neglect of children, and the well-explored conundrums of the divorced Australian woman. However none of them adds anything new to the diagnoses, let alone the cures - and all descend rather easily into that bane of modern Australian fiction: bathos.

And now for Rosie Scott. Nights With Grace is her second novel, and fifth book. (She's also written poetry, stories and a play.) It is the beautifully written, and finely constructed, story of a seventeen year old white girl living on Rarotonga:

Sometimes late at night she looked at herself secretly in the mirror, watched her eyes and skin so closely that each feature lost context and became a map of unknown territories. Gaping pores, the cataclysmic beginnings of a pimple on the corner of her mouth, her eyes liquid and shining with the light of consciousness, riding like quicksilver in their sockets. Saliva bubbling on the roots of her tongue, hairs sprouting like straw on her cheeks, her teeth close up a dirty yellow.

Scott - New Zealand-born, now living in Brisbane - has written one of the finest Antipodean novels of recent times. It is about Grace's coming of age (her character almost palpably forms throughout the story); the bitter resignation of her mother, a ruined beauty; the decay of Rarotonga as white colonisation takes root; the idealism of a young New Zealand journalist, Jack, who helps awaken the locals to their deepening plight, and Grace to her sexuality; and the passion, and singularity, of Jack's relationship with Grace.

Nights With Grace balances these elements remarkably well. At no stage does the story break free from its roots - the unique spirits of its characters - and deteriorate into ideology. Yet the horror of what Australasian-sponsored American culture, and economic values, are doing to the Pacific, is brought home like a series of blows. This is achieved by focussing not on the island's "society", but on one individual at a time: the alcoholic publican; Grace's hopelessly cynical, nihilistic mother; her well-meaning French boyfriend; Jack the would-be saviour; and Grace herself, who may be emblematic of her world: slowly, and with mounting gravity, shaking off the corruption instilled in her - chiefly, perhaps, by television - and coming at last to see the nature of the beast.

Nights With Grace
doesn't "link" the personal and the political: it brings off the rare feat of demonstrating that they are, ultimately, one and the same.


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