Pick­ing at the loose threads of an un­rav­el­ling life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­gela Meyer

MICHAELIS’S child­hood is a tur­bu­lent one. His fam­ily is up­rooted from Hol­land to Australia, twice, and from house to house. The male fig­ures in his life are abu­sive, and his mother of­ten lacks the en­ergy or vi­sion to make choices when it comes to the well­be­ing of her sons. Michaelis grows, and be­comes Michael. His adult re­la­tion­ships carry fear, pain and grudges from his past, and even an in­her­i­tance (or ef­fect) of bru­tal­ity.

As this de­but novel is based on the life of the au­thor, it is un­de­ni­ably brave in the way it de­picts the weak­ness, des­per­a­tion and cru­elty of the char­ac­ters. The nar­ra­tive is pre­sented in frag­ments, like ‘‘ threads’’ of mem­ory. This works well in the first sec­tion, which dips in and out of mo­ments in Michael’s child­hood in Hol­land and Australia in a gen­er­ally lin­ear fash­ion. There is enough with­held to main­tain the reader’s in­ter­est.

In part two, the story of Michael’s half­brother is told, and in the final chap­ters, Michael de­scribes his life as an adult. The novel is starkly re­al­is­tic, so there are no false, sen­ti­men­tal res­o­lu­tions or con­clu­sions. But the reader is also de­prived of the ‘‘ last thread’’ of the ti­tle, or even a mo­men­tum to­ward it.

A lot hap­pens to Michael but he is not an ac­tive char­ac­ter. Some of the small ac­tions, such as talk­ing back to his abu­sive step­fa­ther, are not treated as ac­tion. In­stead, these are writ­ten in the same style as the other ‘‘ threads’’ and frag­ments. Op­por­tu­ni­ties for ten­sion and drama have been over­looked.

The ar­gu­ment could be that in life it­self (as this is re­al­ism) there is no ar­chi­tec­ture to drama. Life events can be un­re­solved and un­sat­is­fy­ing.

The book is a ‘‘ work­ing out’’ of some­thing, not a con­clu­sive pre­sen­ta­tion of a char­ac­ter’s life, which is un­der­stand­able given that it is based on the life of the au­thor.

But this novel did have po­ten­tial for more imag­i­na­tive leaps and bounds (in terms of the nar­ra­tive). It would have been OK for the au­thor to lead the reader to­ward cer­tain emo­tions and con­clu­sions, to sug­gest where the threads join up, in­stead of leav­ing much of it for them to plait to­gether.

A novel such as He­len Garner’s The Spare Room, for ex­am­ple, deals with stark and cruel facts about peo­ple, and life, but there is a co­her­ence and co­he­sion to the nar­ra­tive and themes that is not quite achieved here. Some seg­ments of The Last Thread were pub­lished orig­i­nally as short sto­ries, so this may be part of the prob­lem. Sec­tions re­main self-con­tained.

The main ‘‘ thread’’ of the novel is change, but also how much stays the same. In Australia, Michael’s fam­ily moves of­ten, mostly around New­cas­tle (where the au­thor lives with his fam­ily).

At each house, his mother lays straw tiles over the floors. ‘‘ The tiles fill the air with a barn smell. It’s the smell of new be­gin­nings. The tiles are meant to make ev­ery house feel like the same home, like wher­ever they go they are car­ry­ing the most im­por­tant part of home with them.’’

Michael Sala’s ac­com­plished prose style can­not be de­nied. The mem­o­ries, par­tic­u­larly in part one, are vivid. He also cap­tures well the dif­fi­culty and strange­ness of mov­ing from one side of the world to the other as a child. He is just be­com­ing used to his life in Australia when the fam­ily moves back to Hol­land. Back there, he can ‘‘ still feel the soft tar road be­neath his feet, the sand and the man­grove mud squelch­ing up be­tween his toes. He can­not even imag­ine what snow feels like; he knows only that one is the past and that the other is the fu­ture.’’

An­other no­table el­e­ment is the way Sala de­scribes the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two broth­ers. Con­stan­tine is Michael’s ri­val, idol and en­emy. He is mean to Michael as a boy, and their adult re­la­tion­ship is com­plex. It’s a neat depic­tion of the strange­ness of sib­ling re­la­tion­ships, how chil­dren from the same back­ground can be very dif­fer­ent from one an­other, and re­mem­ber in­ci­dents, and their ef­fects, dif­fer­ently.

All of the senses are tuned in, in Sala’s writ­ing, but of­ten when the reader is just get­ting into the mo­ment, the frag­ment ends. The ‘‘ threads’’ are of­ten ex­quis­ite, but missed op­por­tu­ni­ties for ten­sion and open an­swers re­gard­ing a uni­fy­ing pur­pose may leave some readers want­ing. Af­ter grap­pling with the heavy, true con­tents of his life (which un­doubt­edly must have been dif­fi­cult) with many mo­ments of in­sight, it will be truly in­ter­est­ing to see what ma­te­rial Sala will turn to next, and what he will do with it. An­gela Meyer blogs at http:/ /lit­er­ary­minded.word­press.com/ Michael Sala will be a guest of the Perth Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, Fe­bru­ary 23-26.

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