Poor excuse for art
ATEACHER of literature, cinema and cultural studies at the University of Western Australia, Gail Jones is the author of three novels and two collections of short stories. This year she is in the running for the Miles Franklin prize with Dreams of Speaking .
Sorry is the story of Perdita Keene, the child of English anthropologist Nicholas and his wife, Stella. Having served in World War I, Nicholas is in his final year at Cambridge when he meets Stella. A companion to an old woman near death, Stella seizes on the undergraduate and his offer of marriage as an alternative to unemployment. Together they sail for Australia, Broome in particular, where Nicholas hopes to become famous by studying indigenous culture.
As E. M. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel : ‘‘ The king died and then the queen died’’ is a story. ‘‘ The king died and then the queen died of grief’’ is a plot. Or again: ‘‘ The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through the death of the king.’’
‘‘ This,’’ says Forster, ‘‘ is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.’’ Sorry is a plot with a mystery. ( The first clue comes early when the intermittent narrative voice of Perdita says she developed her stutter at 10, after her father’s death.) The Keenes choose to arrive in Australia in 1930, not a good year, and end up in a shack on a cattle station 32km southwest of Broome, not a good place. Nicholas finds work with the chief protector of Aborigines. Stella, on the other hand, has and is, in fact, nothing.
On their first night in Broome, Nicholas hits her. A spectacular misalliance, ‘‘ the vessel of their marriage was already sundered’’ during the voyage and it gets worse. Perdita is born and named after the child in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale . Resigned already ‘‘ to gigantic unhappiness’’, Stella succumbs to paralysing postnatal depression and is sent away ‘‘ to rest’’. Making his presence felt through violence, the only characteristic Jones gives him, Nicholas moves to the station manager’s house, where he casually rapes Martha, the young black cook, leaving his daughter to flourish ‘‘ in black arms’’ and the plot to find its inevitable mystery. Central to this mystery is Mary, an Aboriginal Jane Eyre hired 10 years later when Stella becomes catatonic. Mary’s character is used in a bid for indigenous credibility, but in Sorry Jones is out of her cultural depth and the result is contrived, perfunctory and melodramatic.
Technically, the main problem with Jones’s writing is that there is just too much of it. She leaves no phrase unturned in her attempt to gild what is an ordinary tale. I am reminded of Forster’s comment on George Meredith, that, like Tennyson, ‘‘ through not taking himself quietly enough he strained his inside’’.
Jones strains after effect again and again, some of her sentences bordering on the unintelligible: ‘‘ her hands were ample gadgets’’, ‘‘ the nerves ceremonious’’, ‘‘ mystically extra- expressive’’.
Putting it nicely, The Irish Times calls this ‘‘ determinedly cerebral’’, intuiting ( one of Jones’s favourite words) the writer’s conceit beneath her manipulation of language, a state of affairs that should never be mistaken for style.
But Jones’s biggest problem is Stella. We can accept her as the typical product of a baker, a housewife and a dying empire, although it is impossible to believe she was ever ‘‘ an interesting child’’. Her claim to fame is her infatuation with Shakespeare, whose words she carries into adult life and spouts at the drop of a cloche.
Like Jones, Stella loves ‘‘ this flaunted language’’, and that’s the trouble. With rare exception Stella speaks in quotes, making her one of the silliest characters in Australian literature.
Title or apology, Sorry is a failure. Its form has been corrupted with skill and probably the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the result is what too many people think of as good writing: the book you buy but never read, the novel you can’t see for the words. Kathy Hunt is a literary critic based in rural Victoria.