Ele­ments co­a­lesce in a hard life

Ele­men­tal

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King Richard King

By Amanda Curtin UWA Pub­lish­ing; 436pp, $29.99

IF the past is a for­eign coun­try, then Mar­garet Duthie Tul­loch (‘‘Meg­gie’’) is a trav­eller from a dis­tant land. In­deed, the nar­ra­tor of Perth writer Amanda Curtin’s splen­did sec­ond novel, Ele­men­tal, has led a life unimag­in­ably dif­fer­ent from the woman to whom her story is ad­dressed.

That woman is Meg­gie’s grand­daugh­ter, Laura, who in a 100-page ‘‘ Coda’’ at the end of the book — an en­velop­ing sec­ond nar­ra­tive — de­scribes her ‘‘ Grun­nie’s’’ man­u­script thus: ‘‘ Rec­ol­lec­tions, al­most like a long, long let­ter. Writ­ten in the years be­fore she died. Her child­hood, mostly, what I’ve read so far. Grim.’’

Grim is the word. Born in 1891 in a fish­ing vil­lage in north­east Scot­land (‘‘at the top of the world — closer to Nor­way than Lon­don’’), Meg­gie is granted the kind of child­hood that only Monty Python’s north­ern­ers, with their cold gravel for break­fast, would re­gard as soft.

The youngest of five chil­dren, three of them boys, she is raised in a two-room cot­tage (or ‘‘ but-and-ben’’), the spare and over­crowded en­vi­ron­ment of which serves as an unim­prov­able metaphor for the suf­fo­cat­ing am­bi­ence of life in the vil­lage more gen­er­ally.

For Roan­haven is a joy­less place where briny su­per­sti­tions and an aus­tere branch of Chris­tian­ity com­bine to pro­duce an at­mos­phere of ex­is­ten­tial res­ig­na­tion and dread, and in which ev­ery man of work­ing age is ex­pected to fol­low in his fa­ther’s foot­steps, which lead di­rectly to ‘‘ the boatie shore’’.

As for the women, they stay in the vil­lage, look af­ter the men too old to fish, pre­pare and at­tempt to barter the catch, and keep one tired eye on the chil­dren. If ever they get a spare mo­ment, they knit.

Set against this dreary back­drop, Meg­gie is some­thing of a splash of colour. Lit­er­ally, in fact, for she is a red­head, which is rare in Roan­haven. The lo­cals re­gard her as a crea­ture of ill omen (a ‘‘ throw­back from some an­cient Pic­tish kin’’) and it’s fair to say the feel­ing is mu­tual. In­spired by her feisty sis­ter Kitta, Meg­gie re­solves to es­cape the vil­lage and the fate of its women as soon as she can.

The ar­rival of the her­ring boats — the be­gin­ning of the end for tra­di­tional vil­lage fish­ing — is thus, for Meg­gie, a happy de­vel­op­ment, al­low­ing her to take a job as a ‘‘ gut­ting girl’’ for a firm of cur­ers.

She dis­cov­ers both friend­ship and love — the lat­ter in the shape of Mag­nus Tul­loch, a ‘‘ cooper boy’’ em­ployed by the firm. For a time she is happy, or what passes for happy, though tragedy soon in­trudes and drives her fur­ther still from Roan­haven.

The rest of Meg­gie’s life is spent in Western Aus­tralia, to which she moves in 1910. Swap­ping the North Sea for the In­dian Ocean, and her gut­ting knife for a pip­ing bag, she takes a job in a bis­cuit fac­tory in Fremantle. Un­for­tu­nately, tragedy, too, has booked a pas­sage and clings to Meg­gie — and to Mag­nus — like lichen. The ef­fects of an old ac­ci­dent and the shock of a fresh one com­bine with war, de­pres­sion and flu to make their lives nearly un­bear­able.

Not that Meg­gie would de­scribe it thus, or at any rate not with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Com­ing as she does from a time and a place in which women (lit­er­ally) are beasts of bur­den — re­quired to lug the creel of fish around the freez­ing coun­try­side and to carry the fish­er­men out to the boats in or­der to keep their seaboots dry (hard­ships to which the ‘‘ mess and muck’’ of the gut­ting yard come as a re­lief) — Meg­gie re­gards such words with sus­pi­cion. ‘‘[ H]ow could I say the word un­bear­able to Ma,’’ she asks on leav­ing Roan­haven, ‘‘ while she had no choice but to stay and bear ev­ery­thing?’’

Ele­men­tal would be a gru­elling read were it not for the beauty of Curtin’s prose. As­so­nan­tal and al­lit­er­a­tive, and pep­pered with Scots and Doric vo­cab­u­lary (‘‘quinies’’ for girls, ‘‘ loons’’ for boys), Meg­gie’s voice is po­etic and con­vinc­ing, while a gen­tle metaphor­i­cal un­der­tow in­vites the reader to make con­nec­tions that may not be im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent. (Each sec­tion of the novel is named for an el­e­ment: wa­ter, air, earth and fire.)

The novel is also struc­turally im­pres­sive, yield­ing its se­crets grad­u­ally. The fate of a boy called Brukie’s Sandy — a fate Meg­gie sees as linked to her own in some cru­cial and yet in­de­fin­able way — is vouch­safed to the reader in tan­ta­lis­ing frag­ments and is all the more af­fect­ing as a re­sult.

In a sense, Ele­men­tal is an emo­tional thriller in which the reader plays the role of de­tec­tive — a role that in­volves not look­ing for clues but draw­ing con­nec­tions be­tween states of mind. This can be an ex­haust­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s also a re­ward­ing one. It also re­minds us what real ex­haus­tion is.

Amanda Curtin

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