Reflections on troubled waters
GIVEN the recent tragic floods in Queensland, it seems apt that water is an unpredictable danger in these two insightful, very different debut Australian novels. If someone can explain to a nonswimmer how it feels to be caught up in laps to the point that stiffness wears off and time is lost, then they have a gift. They need to convince, too, of the need to be convinced in the first place — and this is the skill Sydney writer Peter Rix has.
Rix’s writing doesn’t sing — its evenhandedness can occasionally feel flat — but it does tell you precisely how it is to be in someone else’s shoes, which is no small feat, and one he pulls off with the authority of a more experienced novelist.
Water Under Water concerns a family of four — mother Fran, father Jim and their two sons — dealing with the challenges of the youngest boy’s Down syndrome. Among other things, this novel is a deftly
drawn portrait of a marriage under strain.
The plot centres on the organising of a whitewater rafting weekend that Tom and his Independence Group, a bunch of kids with special needs, are going on. Jim is driving out to join them in an attempt to spend some bonding time with his son, and this is the focus of the drama. Fran has been questioning Jim’s dedication to and love for Tom, and Jim is responding to this. Rix is particularly credible on the way the father seems to hold back a piece of himself from his son’s world, for fear of exposure or pain or embarrassment.
We are taken inside Tom’s head convincingly as he recalls the swimming lessons and the water rules Jim has taught him, and Rix is excellent with the different characters’ voices. There are delightful portrayals of the interactions between the brothers and between Tom and his friends. Rix shows the idiosyncrasies of Tom’s speech patterns and the different ways people respond to him so that we have a very real sense of what it feels like to be Tom and what it feels like to live with Tom.
The direct nature of Rix’s language evokes an emotional response by not overwhelming the reader’s imagination; so conveyed in tight, closely communications.
Tonally, Water Under Water can sometimes be a little subdued, somewhat grey, but nonetheless this is a successful debut with a closely wrought narrative that holds the reader from start to finish. As Rix forces Jim, a lifelong high achiever, to discover the extent of his love, we witness an author unafraid of asking life’s big questions.
The main character in Adrienne Ferreira’s Watercolours is 11-year-old Novi, a precocious young artist still mourning the grandfather who drowned five years ago. He lives with his father and mother, a descendant of the first Italian silk growers on the NSW north coast, in a ramshackle house full of love and creative dreams. much is rendered
When a new teacher, Dom Best, discovers Novi’s artistic talent, he organises private tutelage. But Novi’s paintings, echoing some of the gloom within him, make some locals feel uncomfortable.
This novel, which wears its research lightly, has a strong narrative drive and because of that is eminently readable, despite blemishes. It colourfully captures a recognisable part of Australian life, replete with Rotary clubs, obsessed with sport and suspicious of art. Recognisable, too, is the extreme weather.
When the heavy rain returns, it exposes some truths that had been hidden since the last floods, when Novi’s grandfather Umberto died.
Told through multiple points of view, its characters suffer stereotyping: a bunch of men worry about mothers-in-law, bowel cancer and penile dysfunction; a single woman in her mid-30s despairs over her inability to attract a mate; old biddies are nosy; and so on. We rely on our novelists to show us a complexity that exists beyond stereotypes, but Watercolours for the most part does no more than acknowledge and append them.
Descriptions are adjective laden and heavy handed, sometimes leading towards vaudeville: after a meal ending with strawberries, mint, balsamic vinegar and mascarpone, Dom ‘‘ felt in danger of passing out’’, then ‘‘ dessert vanquished, he collapsed back in his chair with a groan’’. The puppeteer’s strings are a bit apparent.
The charm inherent in Watercolours, then — and there is plenty of it — is all down to the characters. Novi is recognisable as a sensitive, creative child with a lot on his mind. Dom is immensely likable in his youthful enthusiasm. But Novi’s mother, Mira, steals the show as the passionate eccentric with more love than she knows what to do with.
This novel’s flaws are forgivable because of the strength of the bright and believable world Ferreira creates, and I look forward to the development of a lighter touch. Louise Swinn is a writer and the editorial director of Sleepers Publishing.