Picking at the loose threads of an unravelling life
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.