tale of the wild west

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

never quite rec­on­ciles with her grand­par­ents, whose hearts broke when she ran away. Her fa­ther, her most tan­gi­ble link to West­ern Aus­tralia ( he was born and raised there be­fore the fam­ily re­turned to France), is a dis­tant, lonely fig­ure. He is never fully re­alised. ‘‘ When he says Perth, his home town,’’ Rey re­calls, ‘‘ he pro­nounces it the French way, and it be­comes: perte — loss.’’ The ab­sence of con­flict be­tween the es­tranged fa­ther and daugh­ter — his dig­ni­fied, in­evitable un­hap­pi­ness — lends a Racinean qual­ity to their re­la­tion­ship; a qual­ity for which Rey’s early fic­tion is renowned.

More than sad­ness, anger dom­i­nates the novel. It is di­rected mainly at Rey’s mother. At times the pages sear with vit­riol, lam­bast­ing ‘‘ Madame, ma mere’’ as Rey calls her. The mother is a hor­ren­dous fig­ure: selfish, caus­tic and with no ma­ter­nal sen­si­tiv­i­ties; she openly rues giv­ing birth to her daugh­ter. Madame is al­most a par­ody, in this sense, of the mon­strous ma­tri­arch of The Spruiker’s Tale , Mag­no­lita, whose soul was like ‘‘ a bog in which the Devil him­self could drown’’.

Step­ping Out is a cu­ri­ous, en­gag­ing yet ul­ti­mately prob­lem­atic book. The nar­ra­tive struc­ture is largely re­spon­si­ble: it lurches mood­ily from teenage rec­ol­lec­tions to ru­mi­na­tions on writ­ing, to the strug­gle for equal­ity be­tween the sexes. All this makes for com­pelling stuff, and Rey is a fer­vent writer, but at times it is dif­fi­cult to know which Cather­ine is nar­rat­ing and, in turn, which protes­ta­tions and di­a­tribes are plau­si­ble.

That said, Rey nails per­fectly her youth­ful self: her con­flict­ing iden­tity, her teen solip­sism. From a young age she is a vo­ra­cious reader and we have a lot of in­sight — and fun — as she re­counts her de­light in Gus­tave Flaubert, An­dre Gide and Gas­ton Bachelard. Later, when her fem­i­nist agenda kicks in, she ad­mires Vir­ginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes and Car­son McCullers.

Rey is won­der­fully un­bash­ful in de­scrib­ing her creative process: ‘‘ You have to keep what’s lame, re­vi­talise it, re­work it, shorten it here, draw it out there, give it body, a good set of lungs, rhythm, colour, con­trast . . . You have to love it without be­ing mes­merised and look at it without loathing, to get a grip on your­self above all.’’

She also re­mains sobered by the re­al­i­ties of life as a creative artist: ‘‘ It’s hard to ex­plain to any­one who’s not creative that daily life is of­ten hell and can quickly be­come hell for any­one shar­ing it. Ten-hour days, a life of sac­ri­fice, iron dis­ci­pline, no hol­i­days be­cause you can never take a break from your­self.’’

The fem­i­nist tracts of the novel re­veal a woman prac­tis­ing con­tra­dic­tion. Her de­sire for equal­ity and op­por­tu­nity is fierce and yet Rey, as she ad­mits her­self, re­mains trapped within the tra­di­tional role of wife. Later, when Cather­ine moves to West­ern Aus­tralia, she be­gins a re­la­tion­ship with a man known only as P. Here she suf­fers emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse.

Step­ping Out is a lively call for re­newal. Cather­ine is in con­stant search for new be­gin­nings in her life and her art. The Spruiker’s Tale be­gan with verses from the Book of Ec­cle­si­astes, stat­ing the end of orig­i­nal­ity. Step­ping Out, in con­trast, cel­e­brates the lit­er­a­ture that came be­fore it, ac­knowl­edg­ing its in­flu­ences, and Rey’s own ear­lier ten­dency to pas­tiche.

‘‘ I write to res­ur­rect the women who en­gen­dered me,’’ she de­clares, proudly. Step­ping Out is an earnest, hon­est achieve­ment. In its own, mod­est way, it is an in­spi­ra­tional novel. Re­becca Star­ford is deputy ed­i­tor of the Aus­tralian Book Re­view.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.