Mys­te­ri­ous man­u­script leads to a mud­dle

A Lit­tle Rain on Thurs­day By Matt Ru­bin­stein Text Pub­lish­ing, 298pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - De­bra Ade­laide

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.

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