Masterful narrative gives past a voice
READING Christopher Koch’s Lost Voices — his eighth novel and the first in a half decade — is a little like visiting one of our state art galleries.
The viewer shuffles their way through a crowded travelling exhibition, filled with hectoring video works and assemblages made from garbage bags, only to be ejected, via the gift shop, into the unloved 19th-century rooms.
There we note the sheer scale of the canvases hung, the fidelity of colour and line to realistic representation, the almost naive urge to narrative descriptiveness. So different and strange are these paintings in relation to the massed novelty preceding them that they carry a charge of their own: call it the shock of the tried and true.
Koch’s historical novel of Tasmania is like these: resolutely, even jarringly old-fashioned. Its tempo is regular as a human heartbeat. Its language has the rigorous formality of copperplate script. The world it summons into By Christopher Koch HarperCollins, 480pp, $39.99 (HB); $32.99 (PB) being is methodically rendered, complete.
And while it takes the reader a little time to slow down, to sink into the requisite state of attentiveness toward the tale Koch has to tell, an almost-forgotten pleasure emerges from the effort. It is a tribute to the unrepentantly anachronistic nature of the undertaking that Lost Voices feels like the first proper novel I’ve read in ages.
The narrative opens in the town of Glenorchy outside Hobart, in the years around World War II. There a young man named Hugh Dixon — a talented artist, if a middling student — is growing from boyhood into adult knowledge, in a household shaped by his
pedantically father’s disappointments. James, Dixon senior, is the embittered son of local gentry. Decades before, his father refused to pay for him to study law. It was a petty domestic cruelty that James Dixon never got over.
Instead, the bored and frustrated accountant cut himself off from family and gradually fell out of the upper middle class. Indeed, Hugh’s childhood comes to a abrupt end when his usually cautious and upright father steals £100 from his employers and places it on a sure thing at the races. The horse doesn’t win. Hugh takes it on himself to visit his greatuncle Walter, a wealthy lawyer and small-scale gentleman farmer who still lives in the old family house in nearby Montrose, hoping to borrow the money that his father has lost.
In the best 19th-century fictional tradition, this is a consequential meeting. Walter turns out to be a passionate aesthete who comes to support Hugh in his artistic ambitions.
But he is also lonely man who shares with a younger generation some of the skeletons from the family closet.
The most spectacular bit of family gossip concerns Martin Dixon, a colonial-era forebear who spent three months in the high country, living with and writing about a famous pair of bushrangers.
The second book of the three from which the novel is built takes us directly to the early days of the colony and is told mainly from Martin’s perspective, though at an omniscient narrator’s cool remove rather than Hugh’s more intimate first-person account.
In these pages, Koch takes a few stray historical materials and spins a remarkable yarn from them.
We first meet Liam Dalton when he holds up the Dixon family while they are at dinner. Dalton purloins some of the household’s guns and even shares a glass of wine with the horrified party.
At this time, Martin Dixon is a headstrong young man at loggerheads with his father over