Mas­ter­ful nar­ra­tive gives past a voice

Lost Voices

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

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