Submerged by the past
Aphelion By Emily Ballou Picador, 504pp, $ 32.95 Geordie Williamson
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.