Terrible truth dips below the horizon
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
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