Sub­merged in a sea of mem­o­ries

The Sea­glass Spi­ral

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett Felic­ity Plun­kett

ALAN Gould’s The Sea­glass Spi­ral un­coils its nar­ra­tive skeins in the space be­tween near-drown­ing and mirac­u­lous sal­va­tion.

The novel opens with pro­tag­o­nist Ralf Se­bright strug­gling as he swims in the sea, scat­ter­ing his fa­ther’s ashes. Close to giv­ing up hope of sur­vival, his mind is im­bued with mem­o­ries.

As he watches ‘‘ the sea’s ceil­ing, like a dress of sil­ver silk’’, Ralf con­tem­plates per­sonal and fa­mil­ial his­tory and the ques­tion of ex­tinc­tion. The nar­ra­tive emerges from this sur­pris­ingly peace­ful un­der­wa­ter reverie.

The story leaves the drown­ing Ralf and leaps back 10 cen­turies to a Vik­ing named Hrafn, then traces the lin­eages of Ralf and his cher­ished wife, Su­san Raven­glass. The merg­ing of their sur­names pro­duces the epony­mous sea­glass. The sea­glass spi­ral, in its lit­eral form, is an or­na­mented brooch wrapped around a mi­crochip car­ry­ing their fam­ily sto­ries. It is Ralf’s gift to Su­san on the 20th an­niver­sary of their ‘‘ shack­ing up’’.

An epi­graph from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Me­mory de­scribes the spi­ral as a ‘‘ spir­i­tu­alised cir­cle. In spi­ral form, the cir­cle, un­coiled, un­wound, ceases to be vi­cious’’. Ralf’s un­der­wa­ter per­spec­tive is sim­i­larly gen­tly spi­ralling. Like the sub­ject of Five Bells, Ken­neth Slessor’s el­egy for the drowned Joe Lynch, Ralf, ap­proach­ing death, be­gins ‘‘ liv­ing back­ward’’. And like the mourn­ing speaker of Slessor’s poem, me­mory is over­whelm­ing and paradoxical: ‘‘ the flood that does not flow’’. Drown­ing brings a loos­en­ing, and a kind of re­gres­sion from which the nar­ra­tive un­rav­els. The re­sult is a sprawl­ing and par­tic­u­lar work of fic­tion, one that steers close to the non­fic­tional but finds its shape in a vast dis­cov­ery of fam­ily re­sem­blance. While Gould is best known as a poet, this is his eighth novel and fol­lows his 2010 Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Award short­listed The Lake­woman.

Part of the book’s loos­en­ing in­volves cat­e­gories of genre. It has, at once, the schol­arly dili­gence of bi­og­ra­phy and the imag­i­na­tive range as­so­ci­ated with fic­tion. There is a sense of the nar­ra­tive re­flect­ing back and forth be­tween life writ­ing and the fic­tive, col­lect­ing the two in an in­no­va­tive align­ment of their par­ti­cles. Ideas of the par­tic­u­lar and of par­ti­cles pro­vide an over­ar­ch­ing theme.

As much as Ralf might search for the par­tic­u­lar, there is a sense of its elu­sive­ness. The quest is of­ten for the oc­cluded, some­thing sug­gested in one of many im­ages that re­minds us that Gould is a poet.

Ralf re­mem­bers a ta­pes­try and the idea of the ‘‘ un­spo­ken, in­vis­i­ble, like the knots on the ob­verse of the ta­pes­try’s flaw­less sur­face’’. Else­where, Su­san com­ments on the power of a bird’s-eye view of some­thing in­ter­con­nected By Alan Gould Fin­lay Lloyd, 299pp, $28 ‘‘ where the deeper you look, the more in­tri­cate the de­tail, the more fine the re­la­tion­ship of one layer with the next and next’’. It’s tempt­ing to won­der whether, in fact, the nar­ra­tive’s per­spec­tive is a fish-eye view, for its width of fo­cus, and for the way me­mory’s bub­bles and dis­tor­tions sug­gest the un­der­wa­ter.

While the vast cat­a­logue of metaphors de­scrib­ing me­mory of­ten in­volves depth, typ­i­cally mem­o­ries are buried, dug up or un­earthed. Gould’s novel sug­gests they may, in­stead, be sub­merged. Ac­cord­ingly, the pro­tean move­ment be­tween remembering and for­get­ting is cen­tral to the novel’s vi­sion.

Also cru­cial is the story of Ralf and Su­san. While each has learned ‘‘ how un­hap­pi­ness might con­trib­ute to the for­ma­tion of the imag­ined life’’, their con­nec­tion is mag­nif­i­cent and trans­for­ma­tive. Each has felt some­thing miss­ing, Ralf ad­mir­ing cam­pus lovers who glide ‘‘ as if they had leapt from the imag­i­na­tion of Cha­gall’’, while Su­san won­ders, ‘‘ What was it her imag­i­na­tion wished?’’

When they con­nect, they find the ‘‘ an­cient spark of in­ter­est’’. Ten years later, Ralf thinks of Su­san and ‘‘ the sin­gu­lar­ity of her pres­ence, its in­sou­ciance, its love­li­ness, drew him with a glad­ness that was not re­duc­ible to de­sire but in­cluded de­sire’’. Af­ter 20 years, he is able to cel­e­brate ‘‘ a change for the best’’ that shifted his life when they met.

The love story is steeped in loss, since it ap­pears Ralf is drown­ing. Su­san watches from the shore, un­aware that her life may be about to shift again. Be­neath this poignancy, much of the ap­peal of the love story be­tween the two artists lies in Gould’s ex­plo­ration of the po­lit­i­cal and eth­i­cal as­pects of love, as well as the de­light he takes in Su­san’s par­tic­u­lar­ity. Although Ralf is clear that their love ‘‘ must not re­duce to the or­di­nary’’, it is of­ten in the or­di­nary that the lovers an­chor their ‘‘ scrupu­lously just’’ ar­range­ment, in which the work and de­sires of each are re­spected.

This novel is as much about cre­ativ­ity as it is about love, as the ec­cen­tric gift of the sea­glass spi­ral sug­gests. The strands and ten­drils of the back story are not al­ways as com­pelling as the story of Ralf’s long­ing for love and his ex­plo­ration of ideas of sen­si­tiv­ity, pas­sion, con­fu­sion, misog­yny and de­sire. When, as a young man, he looks up the word ‘‘ f . . k’’ to find in its et­y­mol­ogy the word ‘‘ pugnus’’, a fist, and ideas of strik­ing and ru­in­ing (pug­na­cious, re­pug­nant, im­pugn), he knows he is af­ter some­thing ‘‘ more gen­er­ous, more in­tri­cate’’, some­thing cre­ative.

The drift­ing ten­drils of his near-death thoughts re­turn to the im­por­tance of cre­ativ­ity in love, seen through the gen­er­a­tions of cou­plings, but fo­cused through Ralf’s love for Su­san and the lu­mi­nos­ity of nar­ra­tive.

Un­der­wa­ter reck­on­ing

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