Sub­merged by the past

Aphe­lion By Emily Bal­lou Pi­cador, 504pp, $ 32.95 Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE cru­ellest sen­tence of 19th­cen­tury lit­er­a­ture comes in the fi­nal chap­ters of Madame Bo­vary, when our epony­mous hero­ine, deep in debt and aban­doned by her lover, is lurch­ing through fields at dusk to­wards the house where she will kill her­self. In this mo­ment of re­al­i­sa­tion that all is lost, when Emma Bo­vary feels the ground turn to ocean be­neath her and ev­ery thought ex­plodes into fire­works, Gus­tave Flaubert fur­nishes a sin­gle line: ‘‘ Night was fall­ing, some birds flew over­head.’’

It’s the birds that do it, with their aw­ful avian in­dif­fer­ence. Flaubert sends them wing­ing be­cause he wants the reader to un­der­stand that one wo­man’s fall, how­ever acutely and elo­quently de­scribed, means noth­ing to the uni­verse; that the planet will con­tinue to turn de­spite the deep­est hu­man suf­fer­ing. He be­lieved that to achieve ef­fects such as this, fiction that seems more real than re­al­ity, the au­thor must use ‘‘ only the facts of an ir­refutable and con­sis­tent truth’’.

There are also birds in Emily Bal­lou’s sec­ond novel: flocks of galahs and cock­a­toos, rafts of ducks, flights of swal­lows. But they serve a dif­fer­ent pur­pose from those in Bo­vary. In­stead of let­ting them fly, the au­thor cap­tures and holds them in a nar­ra­tive net. There, they are set to work as plot de­vices, omens, sym­bols and psy­chopomps, me­di­a­tors be­tween the char­ac­ters’ in­te­rior states and the ex­ter­nal world through which they move. The fancy name for this sort of thing is the an­thro­po­mor­phic fal­lacy, and its pres­ence here is part of a larger prob­lem with what is an of­ten beau­ti­ful novel, large in scope and am­bi­tion, and writ­ten in a height­ened po­etic style that, at its best, en­no­bles the mun­dane heart­breaks of its cast.

Aphe­lion tells the story of four gen­er­a­tions of women from the Win­dle fam­ily, the last re­main­ing res­i­dents of Old Adaminaby, the high­coun­try town fa­mously flooded 50 years ago as part of the Snowy Moun­tains hy­dro- elec­tric scheme. In the present, two houses are all that re­main of the for­mer town. Set just high enough to es­cape the flood­ing, they sit in un­easy prox­im­ity to the fore­shore of Lake Eu­cum­bene, whose wa­ters, af­ter years of un­bro­ken drought, have sunk to a level that re­veals the skele­ton of the place for the first time since its in­un­da­tion.

The town’s re- emer­gence brings old and painful mem­o­ries to the sur­face, too, and it is the char­ac­ters’ grap­pling with them that grants shape and co­her­ence to the nar­ra­tive. For the fam­ily ma­tri­arch, in­domitable cen­te­nar­ian Hortense, it is mem­o­ries of her beloved Jack, a long dead, high coun­try cocky whose ghostly emo­tional de­mands leave her with lit­tle love to spare for her daugh­ters, Esme and Pic­to­ria.

Esme is a frailer but kin­der ves­sel who could use a mother’s care. Now 80, she is slowly suc­cumb­ing to can­cer.

Feck­less, glam­orous Pic­to­ria ran off with a younger man decades be­fore, leav­ing Esme to rear her niece, Byrne, who in her turn has ended up alone with a daugh­ter to care for. This is Lucetta, youngest and sad­dest of the four, a vet whose young hus­band has drowned in a fish­ing ac­ci­dent on the lake.

So the pic­ture de­vel­ops: a house of women, each haunted by de­mon lovers. In­ter­rupt­ing this Chekho­vian cho­rus is Rhett Davys, the hand­some, world- wan­der­ing son of their re­cently de­ceased neigh­bour, Alessan­dra; a ‘‘ Ulysses back from his many turns’’, as Esme puts it. With him comes Hazel, a young Amer­i­can wo­man en- trusted by an­other lo­cal with the task of cre­at­ing a mu­seum of Old Adaminaby, a job ac­cepted mainly to es­cape a failed ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ment in Syd­ney.

Even the spin­ster Esme mourns a nascent af­fair with a charm­ing Ital­ian mi­grant worker on the Snowy scheme, thwarted be­fore it be­gan by Pic­to­ria’s bolt.

Hazel’s work makes her the record­ing an­gel of the piece. It is to her that the towns­folk of new Adaminaby be­queath their let­ters, pho­tos and me­men­tos, and to her that dy­ing Esme con­fides her own, and her fam­ily’s, story. It is hard not to see Bal­lou, who ar­rived in Aus­tralia from Mil­wau­kee in the early 1990s, in Hazel: both Amer­i­can vis­i­tors, gath­er­ing an­tipodean lives us­ing their re­spec­tive skills. When Hazel imag-

ines the cu­ra­tor ‘‘ as a pup­pet mas­ter, back­stage with nee­dle and thread, pierc­ing the flesh of the world’’, the con­nec­tion be­tween the cu­ra­to­rial and au­tho­rial roles be­comes ex­plicit.

Al­though Rhett, con­fused and guiltily griev­ing for his mother, ini­tially turns to Hazel, it is to Lucetta, with whom he shares a long and im­pas­sioned ( on his side) his­tory, that he is drawn. The other tales, of love sac­ri­ficed for fam­ily, or fam­ily be­trayed for love, or love main­tained with a de­struc­tive de­vo­tion, all co­a­lesce around this pair. Lucette’s ques­tion boils down to this: Is she one whose heart ‘‘ wanted only one for life’’ to show her as ‘‘ a solid force of love to be reck­oned with’’? Or is it ‘‘ no metaphor, but sim­ply a blood- mov­ing mus­cle, an in­ter­nal time­keeper that knew when enough beats had passed, and that you were still open for more bliss’’?

Aphe­lion has con­cerns be­yond the heart, how­ever. In its pages Bal­lou has at­tempted a hymn to the work­ers of the Snowy scheme. Her prose dis­plays an easy com­mand of the de­motic and is flecked with low hu­mour, high intelligence and an eye for the ar­rest­ing im­age: ‘‘ High up, sul­phur- crested cock­a­toos scream, white tis­sues in drafts of air, over the trees, over the stripped­back threads of the rib­bon gums, like girls out af­ter a night of danc­ing, com­ing home with dresses shred­ded.’’

Yet, too of­ten, the birds are bent into shapes that con­tra­vene Flaubert’s care­ful re­al­ism, as are other things. The boat left run­ning when Lucette’s hus­band falls over­board is ‘‘ a whirling con­fused con­trap­tion pan­icked at the loss of its skip­per’’, while trees in sunken Eu­cum­bene are ‘‘ pet­ri­fied by years in pos­tures of yearn­ing, a con­tor­tion of bod­ies, claw­ing the air’’. The fal­lacy of a uni­verse that sighs and weeps for the hurts of its hu­man in­hab­i­tants is un­con­vinc­ing, as the sym­bolic riot of Aphe­lion ’ s con­clu­sion re­gret­tably shows.

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is a Syd­ney- based reviewer.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

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