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Fiction reviews


Year's best Australian fiction (The Independent)

20 December 1990

The Story of the Year of 1912 in the Village of Elza Darzins
by Thea Welsh
Simon & Schuster

Nights With Grace
by Rosie Scott

Oceana Fine
by Tom Flood
Allen & Unwin

by Gillian Mears

by Sara Dowse

Velvet Waters
by Gerald Murnane
McPhee Gribble

Published in The Independent

Around 3 p.m. every Christmas Day, thousands of men and women farewell their families, reluctantly depart the Christmas table, and report to work. These are Australia's duty surgeons, psychiatrists, remand centre staff and morgue attendants. The annual peaks in their professions begin - as uncles get drunk, aunties donged, siblings insulted and the lonely ignored - late on Christmas afternoon, as the celebration of the feast of the incarnation of Our Lord slides, crashes or grinds to its fitful end.

Giving books at Christmas is now a fine Australian tradition. I'd like to share with you the best local fiction I have read during 1990, so that those spurned, burned or interned will (if nothing else) have Australian literature at their sides for the ordeals which lie ahead. Those still in the ring on Boxing Day should enjoy them just as much.

The Story of the Year of 1912 in the Village of Elza Darzins
, Thea Welsh's first novel, is narrated by a young translator employed by the "NSW Film Board". Erika's job interview with the Board's Director - a loquacious onanite with an eye for the deal and none for talent - so closely paralleled my own experiences with the Australian Film Commission that I was immediately impressed. But there was more to my liking for this unusual novel than a comradely glow of recognition. Between its accounts of Sydney film executives jumping on phones, jets and actresses, there is a lovely, personal story of the young narrator's attempt to come to grips with her Latvian ancestry; and adulthood; and the conflicting pulls of success and integrity. Most of all, this immaculately structured novel explores with a rare assurance the well-trodden, but ever-perilous, ground between life and art.

I can't remember a better Australian first novel than this one. It deservedly won the National Book Council's 1990 Banjo Award.

Nights With Grace, by Brisbane writer Rosie Scott, is one of the most passion-filled Australian novels for some years. Grace is a seventeen year old white girl living on Rarotonga. The story is partly about her sexual awakening: here Scott's writing is often starkly erotic (but never voyeuristic). There is a sub-plot: the islanders are alerted to the dangers of chemical defoliants by Grace's lover, Jack - an idealistic young New Zealander:

Freshly shaved, his hair slicked back with water, dressed in white cotton pants with his shirt sleeves rolled loosely on his brown arms, he was a man glowing with love, his aqualine face and tender eyes were sparkling with his message.

Grace's mother, Mara, is the perfect counterpoint to this fragrant young couple. She is irredeemably (and most articulately) cynical about this "unsaveable" world - and intends to continue on amid the fading, tawdry delights of sex and the bottle. "People never know how to take us," Mara tells Jack. "Literate poor, well-read scum, whatever you want to call us. It offends people's sense of the world. They see it as a terrible affront. Especially idealists."

For a short novel, Nights With Grace covers a lot of ground. Male sexuality (that post-feminist minefield) is intelligently explored, via Jack. And Grace, at first uninterested in the destruction of her society, gradually comes to see the nature of the colonial beast. Thus her "awakening", which begins as merely sexual, takes on an increasingly political dimension. The way Rosie Scott fuses all these strands is, in the end, quite masterful.

Oceana Fine. Tom Flood's Finlay Torrent (don't try to say that after the Christmas port) is a student who heads to the wheat belt for four months' work, and uncovers some unholy things, such as murder. Torrent periodically gives way to other characters, their familes, pasts, dreams, et al. The story - in seven big sections - is a cluttered narrative redeemed frequently by fine descriptive writing:

It's pleasant to think of day and night in terms of the clockface, a circular function with recurrent strands that play and play, an enchanted flow in a world swarming through the arteries and veins of hickory-dickory time into the once-dawning, now-daunting capillaries of the future.

There is some of Salman Rushdie's rushed, almost garbled "magic realism" in Oceana Fine - if less of the master's control. Rushdie's direct chat to the reader also recurs in patches; as does a Victorian novel narrative voice, and the occasional stab at Patrick White's super dryness. Most consistent, however, is the train of Dreadful Events punctuated by the narrators' relentlessly grim philosophising: a kind of Freidrich Nietzsche Wakes in Fright.

Only the attempts at James Joyce's stream of consciousness fail entirely. On the other hand, some of the book's surrealism is brilliantly inventive. A scene in which a character reads his aunt's incestuous secrets in her diary, and is joined by a dying wallaby, is very strange and very good. (I also liked the appearances of "wheat babies".)

Like many first novelists, Tom Flood has not yet found his own voice amid the babble of his influences; attempts to cover every subject on Earth; and seems to feel that morbid equals deep. But he does take an astonishing number of risks, and this alone sets Oceana Fine apart from the tameness of much of our new fiction.

Fineflour by Gillian Mears. The Burial and the Busker, the first story in this collection, is narrated by a schoolgirl whose best friend has died - and whose funeral she observes from an overhanging tree. Mears' writing is a long way from the bland recounting of facts, and sporadic blurted emotion, which enslave most of her contemporaries. The impressions on the young girl of the day, the unknown busker who cried at the grave, and (sliding back and forth in time) the feelings of her own relatives and the dead girl's, evoke an unusually sweet melancholy. Mears has captured the voice of the child with a rare genuineness.

Every writer stakes out a spot for herself on the register between fantasy and realism. The unique "recognisability" of Gillian Mears' characters - especially to those of us who grew up in Australia - may be the hallmark of her writing.

These stories are remarkably even too: you float along in them as if drifting down the river of the title. For all that, Mears is not above a bit of black humour. Her narrator describes a school visit to the local nursing home, to present a Father's Day present (shaving soap) to a 100-year-old "local identity". Confusing the occasion with Easter, the old man attempted to eat the soap, had it prised out of his mouth by a nurse, and was left "frothing on the pillow".

Schemetime by Sara Dowse is an ambitious work, set in 1968, which begins with an Australian film-maker making his way to Los Angeles to ply his art. Frank Banner more or less apprentices himself to a once-renowned pre-War European director; draws close to an old flame, who is working for the liberal Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy; and dreams all the while of the legends he has been told, on the boat over, by a mystical Pacific Islander.

And it works. Particularly striking is that the story is told mostly from the male point of view, which Dowse understands better than most woman writers. The various elements of plot and theme - jarringly disparate at first - soon build into a highly realistic vision of modern America, and the attenuated roles therein of artists and dreamers.

Sara Dowse (who headed the women's affairs section of the Prime Minister's Department under Whitlam) knows exactly the relationship between the ideal and the political reality; the dream and the dollar. Virtually alone among writers of Australian fiction, she has a fine understanding of the mechanics of power. This, and her grasp of the male psyche, make her a very unusual writer indeed.

One more superlative: Gerald Murnane is perhaps our most singular writer. His fixation with tiny details plunges him even deeper into realism than Hal Porter, yet with Murnane (who can bend a meaning like baling wire) the tale still seems secondary to the telling.

Velvet Waters (a story collection) gives us a writer scribbling notes at the end of a week-long fiction workshop; a young boy's mice-breeding program; a teacher's failed attempt to establish pen-pals for his class. Yet most of the interest, in the end, is in the narrators' strange ruminations.

A Gerald Murnane story is like a train ride into the country. You begin by merely tolerating the clunk-clunk of the wheels. (His prose has the most hypnotic rhythm.) Just when you are certain you're about to become seriously bored, you glance out the window for the first time - and your breath is taken away by the most surprising beauty. Then a tunnel - a long one. Then a long stretch of barren plain, and still the endless clunking. Then the conductor materialises, and explains to you ways in which the beauty, the plain, the tunnel - and even the wheels, and himself, and yourself - and, yes, even other trains and other people (imaginary-within-the-fiction, real-within-the-fiction, or real-life) - are part of a vast, hitherto unguessed-at universe. Or might be. The story may close on a note of the sheerest banality, or a thought of quite chilling profundity: Murnane seems to attach equal weight to each.

Gerald Murnane plays extraordinary tricks with viewpoint, puts time into reverse, and interweaves real and potential worlds to make them one. He is definitely not for cousin Bruce who wants a good read over January between shots on the family jetski. Cousin Bruce will be baffled down to his fluorescent thongs. If you have a relative with curly three-inch fingernails, or with a tea-strainer collection numbering in the thousands, or who is the third most brilliant trigonometer in the West, s/he may enjoy Velvet Waters. So - to be serious - will anyone who has the courage, and intelligence, to join Murnane while he takes a hammer to that middle-brow fiction we call reality.

In conclusion,  this has been an exceptional year for Australian fiction. It is no exaggeration to say that the above books - five of them by relative newcomers - fill several gaps in our national self-knowledge.

The year in which we lost our greatest author is naturally tinged with sadness. But Patrick White would be cheered to know that the literary standards he set for a generation, and the human values he espoused, are being sustained now more than ever by his heirs and "children".

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