BOOKS:

Brenda Niall’s Can You Hear the Sea? Noëlle Janaczewska’s The Book of This­tles. T. C. Boyle’s The Re­live Box. Hiro Arikawa’s The Trav­el­ling Cat Chron­i­cles.

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Noëlle Janaczewska tells us up front that she’s “in­ter­ested in un­ac­com­pa­nied lan­guage. In col­lage. In rever­ies and writ­ings which switch regis­ter and jump-cut across gen­res.” She’s not alone. Didn’t Ge­orge Saun­ders just get Man Book­ered for some­thing along those lines?

Form and fab­ric, root and branch, Janaczewska aims to un­set­tle the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. An awarded play­wright, poet and es­say­ist, she cer­tainly has the chops to pull off what she calls “part ac­ci­den­tal me­moir, part en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory and part ex­plo­ration of the per­for­ma­tive voice on the page”.

Her sub­ject is os­ten­si­bly the hum­ble this­tle, but the book “is as much about place as it is about plants”. The Na­tional Li­brary, I no­tice, rec­om­mends the book be cat­a­logued un­der Cul­ture, Home, Em­i­gra­tion and Im­mi­gra­tion – no men­tion of Botany or En­vi­ron­men­tal Weeds. Com­ing to Aus­tralia in the ’80s she has, like the this­tle, thrived far from her na­tive habi­tat. Re­vis­it­ing Hert­ford­shire, where she grew up, she scouts for this­tles on road­side verges and, in the grip of grief, re­treats to Thistly Marsh.

In Aus­tralia, this­tles are easy to find and, de­spite the au­thor’s dis­avowals, a reader seek­ing an en­gag­ing his­tory of the this­tle-asweed could find their thrill here. Janaczewska tracks nearly two cen­turies of ef­forts to erad­i­cate the botan­i­cal invader. Over time, we learn, laws aimed at out­law­ing this­tles were ex­panded so that any un­de­sir­able species – black­ber­ries, gorse and scores of oth­ers – could be de­clared this­tles, “on ac­count of their ob­nox­ious or poi­sonous char­ac­ter and rapid pow­ers of mul­ti­pli­ca­tion”.

Janaczewska riffs on the plant’s “cul­tural and so­cial life”, its “dis­rup­tive ten­den­cies”, its out­cast sta­tus and tenac­ity. The poet in her glo­ries in the this­tle’s va­ri­ety – com­mon names such as blessed, creep­ing and melan­choly. She en­gages the reader with a voice that’s per­for­ma­tive with­out be­ing stagey. Of the doomed ex­plorer Le­ich­hardt and his party, she writes “noth­ing was ever found of them. Not a buckle, not a but­ton, not a bone.” Else­where: “The land was thistlesick” and “the this­tle. Em­phatic as sun­light.”

The Book of This­tles has jump-cuts and switch­backs, col­lage el­e­ments such as droppedin news cut­tings, rever­ies that might be po­ems or mis­laid pages of a script, rogue in­ter­jec­tions from the next room. Ab­sent the nar­ra­tive im­pe­tus, can a con­struc­tion such as this sus­tain a reader’s in­ter­est? Yea or nay, the book has real charm, orig­i­nal­ity and a sub­ver­sive kick. FL

UWAP, 250pp, $29.99

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