Brid­get Jones, it seems, has a male equiv­a­lent

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Thuy On

DAVID Quinn is 43, sin­gle and lives a reclu­sive life in a cot­tage on the Ir­ish is­land of Inish­more. When he’s not work­ing on his book about cor­po­rate men­dac­ity or help­ing his sis­ter Orla run a sham­bolic guest­house, he suf­fers the pangs of baby hunger. Fear­ing ex­tinc­tion with­out de­scen­dants, he is cur­dled by his de­sire for a fam­ily and even act­ing as a sur­ro­gate fa­ther to his three neph­ews does not quell his need to be the cen­tre of some­one else’s life.

Deb­o­rah Robert­son’s pre­vi­ous works in­clude a well-re­ceived col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Proud­flesh, and a Miles Franklin Award short­listed novel, Care­less. With Sweet Old World she con­tin­ues her ru­mi­na­tions on love and loss.

A chance en­counter with Et­tie, 17, who ruf­fles over David’s mono­lithic drea­ri­ness like a fresh breeze over a grey stone is­land, prom­ises to pro­vide him with the im­pe­tus to move and change. That is un­til her co­main­duc­ing bike ac­ci­dent, pos­si­bly caused by her re­fusal to take her epilepsy med­i­ca­tion. So David is once again re­duced to stag­nat­ing in self-pity about his child­less fu­ture.

For­tu­nately, an­other chance of hap­pi­ness ma­te­ri­alises in the form of Et­tie’s mother, Ta­nia, who comes from Western Australia to be at her daugh­ter’s bed­side. David and Ta­nia be­gin a ten­ta­tive re­la­tion­ship full of tor­tur­ous set­backs and mis­un­der­stand­ings as well as ro­man­tic mo­ments such as pop­ping grapes into each other’s mouths.

Sweet Old World creeps along; its tone is lugubri­ous and pon­der­ous. One of the prob­lems is the un­en­gag­ing pro­tag­o­nist, who mopes about, rem­i­nisc­ing about failed re­la­tion­ships and un­born ghost chil­dren and whinge­ing about his dodgy back. While it’s a change, post-brid­get Jones, to read about over­wrought male sin­gle­tons who feel un­ful­filled with­out part­ner and prog­eny, David’s ob­ses­sive carp­ing is tedious.

Even when he’s in hospi­tal vis­it­ing Et­tie, David mar­vels at the new fa­thers wan­der­ing around out­side ma­ter­nity wards. Their very or­di­nar­i­ness of­fends him. He can’t un­der­stand why they’re not wear­ing crowns on their heads when ‘‘ they are the kings of the world to­day’’.

By in­vest­ing in such a char­ac­ter as her main nar­ra­tive linch­pin, Robert­son does her book no favours. Et­tie, a far more vi­brant and in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter, un­for­tu­nately is un­con­scious for most of the novel. Nor do we spend much time alone with Ta­nia, ex­cept to learn she has aban­don­ment is­sues thanks to a feck­less fa­ther and ex-hus­band.

Sweet Old World is an old-fash­ioned love story about the need for com­fort and safe har­bour, par­tic­u­larly when mid­dle age marks a process of ero­sion and deep­en­ing fault lines. The novel is shot through with weak rays of hope but it’s mostly a melan­cholic af­fair, more bit­ter than sweet.

Like Sweet Old World, The Long­ing is about mak­ing con­nec­tions and find­ing a sense of be­long­ing, but here the sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the two books ends. Candice Bruce’s novel bus­tles about and is crammed with mo­men­tous public in­ci­dents, com­pared with Robert­son’s quiet, in­tro­verted, lan­guidly paced story. The Long­ing is an am­bi­tious de­but for Bruce, an art his­to­rian and cu­ra­tor, who brings her knowl­edge of fine art to this in­tri­cately plot­ted story about the prove­nance of a cache of long for­got­ten but valu­able 19th-cen­tury art­work.

But the book’s ex­plo­ration of the daubs and sketch­ings of the time also serves as a means to can­vass the treach­er­ous ter­rain of sex­ual pol­i­tics and race re­la­tions in fron­tier Australia. The con­cur­rent nar­ra­tive moves be­tween the mid-1850s to the present day.

The his­tor­i­cal story fo­cuses on El­lis Macrorie, wife of an as­pi­ra­tional Scot­tish pas­toral­ist, and her Abo­rig­i­nal ser­vant, Louisa, while the con­tem­po­rary one cen­tres on a cu­ra­to­rial as­sis­tant, Cor­nelia, who is re­search­ing the work of a prom­i­nent (but fic­tional) 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can land­scape painter, S. P. Hart, in cen­tral Vic­to­ria.

With painstak­ing sleuthing in the dusty cor­ners of a ram­bling homestead, Cor­nelia dis­cov­ers how in­te­gral her artist was in the lives of the lovelorn El­lis and her loyal com­pan­ion Louisa (oth­er­wise known as Leer­peen Wee­lan).

Bruce writes with great em­pa­thy of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two women, whose friend­ship tran­scended the rigid class and colour de­lin­eations of the time. There’s a wealth of his­tor­i­cal de­tail cap­tured in the novel, rep­re­sent­ing the colo­nial as well as indige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence. We suf­fer along with bored and rest­less El­lis, con­fined to the do­mes­tic hearth, and Louisa, who has sur­vived a mas­sacre and had her daugh­ter forcibly re­moved from her. In­deed, sex and vi­o­lence is never far from the rar­efied world of art pol­i­tics, with the long­ing of the ti­tle en­com­pass­ing the de­sire for home and for ro­man­tic and fa­mil­ial love.

The Long­ing is part mys­tery, part his­tor­i­cal ro­mance, part cul­tural com­men­tary. Bruce ex­plores how chance dis­cov­er­ies — sym­bolic etch­ings on a pos­sum skin cloak, for ex­am­ple — have the power to change his­tory, and how eas­ily sig­nif­i­cant events can elude the le­git­i­macy of be­ing noted in the public record. The col­li­sion of past and present is skil­fully man­aged with the au­thor mov­ing her large cast of char­ac­ters through time and place, through rugged bush­land and teem­ing cities.

Land rights, an­cient cul­tures and in­ven­tions, stolen chil­dren, proto-fem­i­nism, even phrenol­ogy: the var­i­ous big is­sues of the day are wo­ven into the crowded nar­ra­tive but at its heart the book is about the serendip­i­tous in­ter­link­ing of three women and how their lives are shaped, con­trolled and twisted by events be­yond their con­trol.

Thuy On is a Melbourne-based re­viewer.

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