Thrilling jour­ney of self- dis­cov­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam Dav­i­son

TRAN­SIT Lounge is one of the more in­ter­est­ing in­de­pen­dent presses op­er­at­ing in Melbourne. Since 2003 it has pub­lished a small, eclec­tic list of lit­er­ary fiction, non­fic­tion and po­etry, mostly con­cerned with travel to ex­otic places and the junc­tions be­tween East and West.

To date, Tran­sit’s fiction list has com­prised Liz Gal­lois’s beau­ti­fully evoca­tive story col­lec­tion, In­dia Vik . The Ask­ing Game is Tran­sit’s first novel. It’s an im­pres­sive start.

Rose Michael’s de­but novel, launched at the 2007 Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, is no ten­ta­tive be­gin­ner’s piece. I first read an ear­lier draft when it was com­mended in The Aus­tralian - Vo­gel Lit­er­ary Award in 2002 and was im­pressed then by its so­phis­ti­cated take on big is­sues and the nar­ra­tive drive that came from its meld­ing of the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller with spec­u­la­tive fiction.

While not short on lit­er­ary al­lu­sion, it had a less stud­ied lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­ity than many first nov­els by young writ­ers. The Ask­ing Game is a bold, am­bi­tious work that takes risks and, for the most part, pulls them off.

The year is 2020 and Alice ( aka Eve) is be­ing watched. When she en­ters the vir­tual world of the Grand Pa­cific Blue Room, the avatar who goes by the name of Drew may or may not be the same young man who lives in the flat up­stairs, who Alice sus­pects is spy­ing on her. When he asks her to em­bark on a jour­ney in search of the true mean­ing of Eter­nity, Alice sus­pects a link with her older sis­ter Lucy, whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years.

Al­though their re­la­tion­ship is fraught, Alice none­the­less feels tied to Lucy in ways that are usu­ally the pre­serve of twins. She lives a sec­ond­hand child­hood of phan­tom mem­o­ries and re­dis­cov­ery rather than dis­cov­ery, re­call­ing things she hasn’t done, as though Lucy has passed her ex­pe­ri­ences on to her. When Lucy

aban­dons her, the strain of sep­a­ra­tion is ex­ac­er­bated by a sec­ond- child syn­drome of monumental pro­por­tions.

The search for Eter­nity takes Alice and Drew on a dream- like road trip through the deserts of West­ern Aus­tralia to the ghost- town of Edith, where Alice and Lucy spent their child­hood. Al­though no trace of Eter­nity — a mil­lenar­ian sect that flour­ished there dur­ing the 1990s — can be found in on­line records or archives, the aban­doned mis­sion on the town’s out­skirts still has se­crets to re­veal about what went on there un­der the charis­matic Rev­erend Mitchell.

Fu­elled by apoca­lyp­tic para­noia about cli­mate change and lured by the myth of eter­nal life, a band of fol­low­ers sought sal­va­tion through science, cul­ti­vat­ing ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops and spawn­ing per­fect herds in a bid to guar­an­tee their fu­ture.

But Eter­nity was also a front for some­thing of far greater sig­nif­i­cance. Cells and ge­netic mis- takes ac­cu­mu­late. Clones in­herit age. What else may be in­her­ited? More im­por­tant, what is it that makes us who we are? Michael lets the con­se­quences of her char­ac­ters’ ac­tions un­fold and re­lies on her skill as a sto­ry­teller to ask the nec­es­sary ques­tions.

Th­ese are not new ques­tions. Nor is Michael the first to ex­plore them through spec­u­la­tive fiction, though her meld­ing of mul­ti­ple gen­res brings a new per­spec­tive to them. The lit­er­ary pre­cur­sor to The Ask­ing Game is Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein and Michael shows she can turn her hand to the trap­pings of ro­man­tic gothic hor­ror when the need arises. There is a scene late in the novel in­volv­ing pick­ling jars and un­speak­able things in formalde­hyde that will make your flesh crawl.

There are also re­cur­ring ref­er­ences through­out the novel to Lewis Car­roll’s Alice in Won­der­land that bring a dif­fer­ent di­men­sion to the novel and work to vary­ing ef­fect. While they li­cense Michael to ex­plore the seem­ingly ab­surd oth­er­world that Alice en­ters through var­i­ous por­tals ( com­puter screens re­place mir­rors), they of­ten seem laboured and shift the fo­cus from the story to ideas that need to be spelled out too clearly. Un­for­tu­nately, they also bring the film The Ma­trix to mind when the reader should be fo­cus­ing on the orig­i­nal­ity of Michael’s vi­sion. But this is a mi­nor con­cern, given the over­all achieve­ment of the novel. It is a stylish, so­phis­ti­cated thriller that is not afraid to take on the big, uni­ver­sal is­sues.

Alice’s quest for her fugi­tive past and for a pos­si­ble rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Lucy works mar­vel­lously as a per­sonal story of self- dis­cov­ery while en­gag­ing with the pub­lic de­bate that nec­es­sar­ily fol­lows in the wake of sci­en­tific ad­vance­ment. Liam Dav­i­son’s nov­els in­clude Sound­ings and The White Wo­man.

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