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Fiction reviews


Jane Hyde - Between the Flags; Peter Kocan - Flies of a Summer

30 April 1989

Between the Flags, and other stories
Jane Hyde

Flies of a Summer
Peter Kocan
Angus and Robertson

Published in The Australian

Jane Hyde strips Nick right down to his raddled, holey underpants in the novella (The Green Waving Rye Fields of Wales) which begins this collection. Nick is a thirty-four-year-old adolescent, selfish, lazy, and quite devoid of insight. What greater ignominy could befall a fictional character? Well, he's also an accountant.

Early on, dialogue is artificial - and the author's dogged list of narrative facts rather wearying. Nick himself is more aheroic than anti, and the unsettling question which arises after fifteen pages of him wading through his dirty washing, ignoring pleas on his answering machine, et al, is - so what?

Mercifully, we soon feel a weak pulse; Nick's long-lost mistress, Angela, even begins to haunt us a little. Hyde soon gathers steam, and begins to explore and draw together experiences like male anger, and the fathomless horror some women feel after abortion. She does so with an exceptional skill. The novella's recovery from its early amateurishness is remarkable and complete. At first you curse her for giving us Nick. Eventually you realise she has put a very real face to that horde of "others" which passes us every day in Pitt and Bourke Streets.

The eight short stories which follow possess a most becoming modesty. The writing is far more polished here. The Hidden Landscape of the Heart is particularly fine, as the title alone suggests.

Jane Hyde's writing seems to arrive at its impeccable destinations by instinct alone. Hard male edges are missing entirely: syntax is frequently sloppy, dialogue rambles, and in the novella non sequiturs run thick enough on the ground to tempt you to take a gun to them. One wonders, too, if familiarity with the English language is still a requirement for publishers' editors: Numerous sentences such as, "Incredibly, like America, he has never been to Victoria" slip through.

But for her sins - chiefly technical - Ms Hyde has a singular outlook which even the staunchest pedant must eventually warm to.

Peter Kocan, too, isn't a "sophisticated" writer. Flies of a Summer follows a group of post-holocaust adolescents - who are kept in a rude village breeding slaves for the brutish Margai, who rule the immediate world. Only the heroic Rowan questions his fate: he steals hours in the neighbouring bush; he discovers there an old (non-Margai) man. Later, our unnamed narrator stays in the old man's cave, absorbing all manner of rumour and fact about the history of their shared race.

There are strong echoes of David Malouf's An Imaginary Life. However Kocan marshals little of the minutiae of the soul which it is Malouf's blessed lot to evoke for us. There is an extraordinary night scene wherein Rowan and Lon, his rival for the love of the girl Rada, listen to Rada giving birth in an adjoining hut. It rates just over half a page. Perhaps Peter Kocan should trust his characterisation a little further, for it is often very promising.

There are countless religious innuendoes. Some of Kocan's adolescents dream that over the valley their parents work and thrive, in a green abundant land - and that one day, if they behave, the Margai will re-unite them with them. Another time Rowan says, "I still don't know what I was born as!" There is a lot of this virtually spiritual questioning. It's frowned upon by the majority, and eventually helps isolate Rowan altogether. So he bravely leaves the village to find answers as to his origins - bringing to mind an array of questors from Gautama to Lancelot.

The resolution, and Rowan's apocalyptic role therein, is forseeable - but lends to this book a pleasing wholeness, the foundation of which is its most evocative simplicity.

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