Mysterious manuscript leads to a muddle
A Little Rain on Thursday By Matt Rubinstein Text Publishing, 298pp, $ 32.95
PROFOUND questions are at the heart of Matt Rubinstein’s new novel, which I began reading with great anticipation, having encountered an earlier version of it some years back as a judge of The Australian / Vogel literary award. Then, it held dazzling promise, but was not fully realised as a narrative.
As A Little Rain on Thursday , it is undeniably still full of dazzling promise. The idea of the power of language and also its weaknesses generates a story that is refreshingly ambitious, richly imagined and, in Australia at least, highly original. In writing what amounts to a literary thriller, Rubinstein has produced something enormously clever. He has almost pulled it off.
The novel opens with an enigmatic Russian film that Jack, the protagonist, a translator, is slowly subtitling. In this work, Jack strives not just for literal accuracy but for true metaphorical expression. The process is further encumbered by linguistic challenges and is stalled altogether when Jack discovers a mysterious manuscript hidden in the deconsecrated church in which he and his girlfriend live. Written on vellum in an unknown script and containing numerous tiny illustrations, the manuscript quickly makes a claim on him. Indeed, it is powerful beyond his imagination, tempting him with its illusion of arcane and great knowledge.
Brought by a monk ( Jack decides, after some research) from Europe via Land’s End in England to be hidden in one of Sydney’s oldest churches, it has a biblical value, or is perhaps even more precious.
Jack’s determination to break the script’s code, translate the manuscript and reveal its alchemical treasures then fuels a story in which he abandons his work, neglects his girlfriend Beth and begins to suspect everyone around him, including his closest friends, of some dark conspiracy to destroy him and reclaim the manuscript. But is this manuscript as dangerous, as full of powerful secrets, as he believes? It is here the novel comes adrift, because Jack’s obsession never really becomes ours.
Without this vital connection his ensuing paranoia and fear are allowed to dominate the story, which is full of bizarre events compounded by extraordinary coincidences and expeditious plot links.
Additionally, there are numerous scenes that are, within the overall narrative structure, irrelevant or mystifying. These are given significance yet they simply evaporate from the story.
As a character, Jack is earnest and wellmeaning but also obtuse and oversensitive, trusting and doubtful, all at once.
He develops a strong messianic streak verging on some form of madness. Early on he believes only he can save everyone around him, as well as the manuscript: Beth, who is grieving for her father, Frank; Frank himself, whom Jack believes was adversely affected by the manuscript; and Beth’s mother, who is simmering with resentment and concealing her long- term affair.
There is a fine but necessary line between the representation of a character’s chaotic state of mind and a muddled story. Reading A Little Rain on Thursday is an apocalyptic sort of experience, as the story is crowded with mythical and meaningful figures: the Knights Templar, monks, St John’s Hospitallers, forgers, hangmen and convicts. Then there are far too many symbolic places: libraries, deserts, book deposits, graveyards, churches, laboratories and lighthouses.
There is so much in this narrative that it loses the focus crucial to sustain the mystery and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Just as Jack is desperate to squeeze significance from his manuscript, so it seems the author has done the same with this novel. Debra Adelaide is a novelist and teacher of creative writing.