Ter­ri­ble truth dips be­low the hori­zon


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bethanie Blan­chard

By Cherise Say­well Vin­tage Aus­tralia, 304pp, $32.95

SINCE Co­leridge’s The Rime of the An­cient Mariner, the al­ba­tross has been in­vested with a myth­i­cal qual­ity. The great birds have been said to be the souls of lost sailors, their pres­ence a sign of bad luck (or some­times good luck), their im­age a sym­bol of folly or hubris. Co­leridge’s fa­mous lines: ‘‘ In­stead of the cross, the Al­ba­tross / About my neck was hung’’ made them an avian metaphor for bur­den, guilt or ob­sta­cle.

In Cherise Say­well’s Twitcher, a novel stylis­ti­cally as still, spare and flat as the hori­zon, an al­ba­tross has a fleet­ing pres­ence on the small Bri­tish coastal town where young Kenno and his fam­ily live. Cir­cling the coast­line look­ing for a place to nest thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from the rest of its kind, the bird is sighted ev­ery few years. It’s rare ap­pear­ance ex­cites those avid watch­ers of sel­dom-seen birds, twitch­ers, who visit the area.

Kenno doesn’t con­sider him­self a twitcher, but he is search­ing for his own mer­cu­rial thing, one as bur­den­some as Co­leridge’s al­ba­tross: the truth of what hap­pened to his fam­ily 15 years ago, the ef­fects of which re­ver­ber­ate through­out their lives, rup­tur­ing them.

Too young when it oc­curred to re­mem­ber him­self, Kenno is trapped by what he can’t seem to con­jure, cap­ti­vated by his older sis­ter Lou’s scar, ‘‘ the sand and grit un­der her skin that’ll never come out’’, the disas­ter etched high across her fore­head.

Say­well takes the epi­graph

to her

novel from Tim Birk­head’s The Wis­dom of Birds: ‘‘ The way a bird po­si­tioned it­self in its cage in­di­cated the di­rec­tion in which it would mi­grate if it were free.’’ Kenno’s fam­ily are all caged in their own way by the event, each try­ing to cope with the grief, re­sent­ment and guilt. His par­ents find ways to for­get: obliv­ion through drink, or the consolations of re­li­gion.

Birds hold a cer­tain fas­ci­na­tion for Kenno and his older friend Andy, ‘‘ Be­cause they’re wild, I sup­pose. They be­long to the sky, don’t they? But they can’t lay their eggs there. The eggs be­long to the earth.’’ Kenno’s fam­ily, too, oc­cu­pies this lim­i­nal space be­tween one place and the next.

Feel­ing a ter­ri­ble in­debt­ed­ness for sur­viv­ing the event un­scathed — like the sou­venir bot­tle on the man­tel­piece with the tiny ship in­side it — Kenno re­solves to make it right. With the im­pend­ing evic­tion from their rented home, he forms a plan to get his fam­ily enough money to buy a house of their own, by mak­ing some­one pay for the disas­ter that be­fell them.

NSW-born Say­well, who lives in Bri­tain, writes of the se­duc­tive consolations pro­vided by day­time-TV ads for a com­pen­sa­tion claims com­pany, the sooth­ing words of the suited man: ‘‘ I’m a lawyer. If you’ve had an ac­ci­dent or suf­fered an in­jury through no fault of your own, you may be en­ti­tled to com­pen­sa­tion.’’

In what is the high­light of the novel, Say­well de­picts Kenno’s at­tempts to ren­der the com­plex mess of suf­fer­ing and mis­for­tune in book­lets pro­vided by the com­pen­sa­tion com­pany: ‘‘ It’s to help you work out what you’re owed. You tick the body part af­fected — head, up­per body, lower body, arms and feet. Then you go down the list be­neath and check the boxes that re­late to you.’’ He puzzles over how best to draw on crude le­gal out­lines of bod­ies the in­tan­gi­ble trauma and dam­age wrought on each of his fam­ily mem­bers.


The al­ba­tross is a fleet­ing pres­ence and a metaphor in

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