Poor ex­cuse for art

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathy Hunt

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.

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