Re­flec­tions on trou­bled waters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louise Swinn

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.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.