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Geral­dine Brooks’s Pulitzer prize-win­ning novel reimag­ines an Amer­i­can trauma, writes Stella Clarke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Stella Clarke

Geral­dine Brooks’s novel March is to­day’s free e-book se­lec­tion

‘IBE­LIEVE fic­tion mat­ters. I know it has power,’’ Geral­dine Brooks said in last year’s Boyer Lec­tures (ti­tled The Idea of Home). As a war cor­re­spon­dent, Brooks learned the value of read­ing. It alarms ‘‘ jail­ers’’ and ‘‘ despots’’, and can in­stil a sense of jus­tice, hope and pur­pose where such things are un­der threat. (The re­cent fate of Pak­istani school­girl Malala Yousafzai, a cam­paigner for fe­male ed­u­ca­tion, un­der­scores the fact there are bat­tles not yet won.)

In March, as in the rest of Brooks’s fic­tion, there are char­ac­ters who cher­ish books and fight against the odds to read, write and learn: girls, women, slaves, sub­jected peo­ple. Though she is a his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist, the ideals that mo­ti­vate her are not con­fined to the past.

Brooks trans­ports read­ers to ear­lier eras brought alive by her grasp of their phys­i­cal re­al­i­ties and ide­o­log­i­cal con­tests. She ‘‘ draws in­spi­ra­tion from the past’’ and ‘‘ nour­ishes it with ex­pe­ri­ence gar­nered as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent’’. Her fic­tion is vivid and com­pelling, but with a con­stant sub­text urg­ing en­light­en­ment against bru­tal­ity and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Brooks is haunted by hor­rors she has wit­nessed. Mere re­portage, jour­nal­is­tic or his­tor­i­cal, leaves a void, which it is the job of em­pa­thy and imag­i­na­tion to fill. Imag­i­na­tion, for her, is more like an ex­er­cise in psy­cho­log­i­cal con­fronta­tion, an ef­fort at re­deem­ing events from ab­sur­dity into the sig­nif­i­cance of story. With a sense of the awk­ward the­atri­cal­ity of the idea, she ad­mits her im­pe­tus to write comes from hear­ing ‘‘ voices’’. In­evitably, they have some­thing use­ful to say. Af­ter work­ing for years in global trou­ble spots, the Sydney-born, US-based writer opted to re­port back, in­stead, from his­tor­i­cal front­lines.

In 2001 she pub­lished Year of Won­ders, based on a ter­ri­ble event in 1666, in the Der­byshire vil­lage of Eyam, when plague caused the vil­lage to be quar­an­tined and its pop­u­la­tion to be grad­u­ally wiped out. Brooks’s tal­ent for im­mers­ing read­ers in the habits of thought and speech, mun­dane sen­su­al­ity and quo­tid­ian hard­ships of an ear­lier time was im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent in this fic­tional de­but.

This was fol­lowed, four years later, by March, which won Brooks a Pulitzer prize. Her in­spi­ra­tion for March was not only his­tor­i­cal but lit­er­ary and philo­soph­i­cal. The novel em­braces a nexus of sub­jects from Amer­ica’s cul­tural heart­land. March, her nar­ra­tor, grew partly out of the ab­sent fa­ther of Louisa May Al­cott’s much-loved 1868 novel, Lit­tle Women. The story and char­ac­ters in that book de­rive from Al­cott’s fam­ily life. Brooks per­pet­u­ates this by fash­ion­ing March from her knowl­edge of Amos Bron­son Al­cott, Louisa’s visionary fa­ther, who is con­nected to the ven­er­ated, tran­scen­den­tal­ist fig­ures of Ralph Waldo Emer­son and Henry Thoreau.

The stakes were high. Ei­ther this in­trepid an­tipodean au­thor was go­ing to up­set ev­ery­one with her sac­ri­le­gious fid­dling among na­tional trea­sures, or she was go­ing to do it so bril­liantly she would be en­dowed with the US’s high­est lit­er­ary hon­our.

March trav­els into the an­te­bel­lum south, as a ped­dler, and later an army chap­lain dur­ing the Civil War. He writes mov­ing let­ters home to his beloved wife and daugh­ters, but con­ceives a pas­sion for Grace Cle­ment, a re­mark­able slave woman. Grace’s voice was in­spired by the 1861 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of a lit­er­ate slave girl. She is a stately fig­ure of strength and courage in a world where her rights were nonex­is­tent and her free­dom ap­pallingly con­strained.

Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, Brooks pulls no punches in her graphic ac­counts of the shock of war or the de­prav­ity of slav­ery. Yet the book also ex­plores con­cerns that thread through all her fic­tion. March is an abo­li­tion­ist and ide­al­ist whose prin­ci­ples are se­verely tested in ac­tion. Lit­er­acy and ed­u­ca­tion are ex­am­ined for the real lib­er­a­tion they of­fer, as op­posed to a ve­neer of cul­tural so­phis­ti­ca­tion. The novel also mov­ingly ex­plores how a cou­ple’s emo­tional bond can sur­vive an in­di­vid­ual’s trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. The writ­ing of March was trig­gered by the dis­cov­ery of a belt buckle that be­longed to a sol­dier of the civil war. It may also have in­volved an in­trigu­ing part­ner­ing of his­tory and fic­tion. Brooks is mar­ried to Amer­i­can Pulitzer prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian Tony Hor­witz. Last year, to crit­i­cal ac­claim, Hor­witz pub­lished Mid­night Ris­ing, a pow­er­ful his­tor­i­cal ac­count of the up­ris­ing that helped trig­ger the Civil War, which plays an im­por­tant part in March.

March was fol­lowed by Peo­ple of the Book (2008), con­cern­ing the Sara­jevo Hag­gadah, a Jewish prayer book that mirac­u­lously sur­vived through six cen­turies of Euro­pean con­flict, and, last year, Caleb’s Cross­ing. Both these nov­els jour­ney into the past to ex­plore is­sues of race and sex dis­crim­i­na­tion, and Brooks’s faith in the power of ed­u­ca­tion to take peo­ple be­yond the de­struc­tive po­ten­tial of reli­gious bias, to­wards a greater hu­man­ity.

Brooks has found rich in­spi­ra­tion in her adopted home. Of her four nov­els, two are steeped in epochs of con­flict in US. What is no­tice­ably miss­ing from Brooks’s reper­toire is any full-on han­dling of Aus­tralia’s past. Per­haps this is too close to home. She has said: ‘‘ If I ever want to write of my own coun­try, I will have to learn it, like a for­eigner, like a mi­grant, leaf by leaf.’’ When she has learned it, it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see which voices speak to her.

His­to­ri­ans and crit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors oc­ca­sion­ally have been ir­ri­tated by Brooks’s ap­proach to his­tory. She is con­sis­tent in her method, se­lect­ing some tempt­ing his­tor­i­cal frag­ment as the seed from which to grow a liv­ing, breath­ing, nar­ra­tive. Her re­search is usu­ally metic­u­lous. How­ever, in her af­ter­word to March, she freely ad­mits ‘‘ for those who care about such things’’, to tak­ing the ‘‘ nov­el­ist’s li­cence’’ with time­frames. De­bat­ably, her achieve­ment earns her the right to such small free­doms.

Brooks jus­ti­fies her nov­el­ist’s claim on his­tory via her be­lief in the fun­da­men­tal con­stancy of hu­man na­ture. Of the char­ac­ters she chooses to write about, she says ‘‘ they loved, as I love’’, and that ‘‘ is as good a start­ing point as any’’.

To the act of sto­ry­telling, Brooks brings not only eru­di­tion but her con­fronta­tion with the world’s ter­rors, and an over­rid­ing quest for un­der­stand­ing. In fic­tion, this vet­eran re­porter has made a home, a place where, she be­lieves, there is heart.

Geral­dine Brooks

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