NEW AUSTRALIAN FICTION:
POPPY Gee’s debut novel Bay of Fires (Headline Review, 320pp, $29.99) is a troublein-paradise literary thriller set in the beautiful Tasmanian coastal region of the title. Tasmanian-born, Brisbanebased journalist Gee delivers a compelling character-driven story that is refreshingly original.
Sarah Avery, an aquaculturist in her mid-30s, has returned to Tasmania from a job managing a Queensland barramundi farm following a relationship break-up. She’s an unlikely heroine, a complex amalgam of sensitivity, obsessiveness, misanthropy, boozer and tomboy. She’s ensconced for the summer at her family’s holiday shack in the Bay of Fires, where she lives with her parents, airline stewardess sister Erica and Erica’s pilot boyfriend Steve. Her parents are locked into their social habits and seem oblivious to her despair, which she confronts by drinking too much and fishing. Only her sister notices, but Sarah’s envy of Erica’s seemingly perfect life makes her resist finding any succour there.
When a young Swiss backpacker is found dead on the beach, the small village becomes the focus of a media pack. Among them is Hall Flynn, an old-school local journalist, broken since his wife ran off with his best friend. Against the unlikely dance of these characters is an array of fascinating minor players, all superbly drawn.
More than a murder mystery, this is a tale of odd-bods and resistance to the status quo. In many ways the smaller the community, the larger the characters become, and Bay of Fires in this respect reminds you of other writers of the geographic fringes such as E. Annie Proulx. There’s a powerful social intelligence at work here and Gee’s compassion for her characters and their predicaments is palpable. She has taken the scaffolding of a crime novel and used it to tread beyond the parameters of genre conventions and investigate the messier terrain of human frailty and endurance. It’s a book that gets you thinking about people rather than plots, and is all the better for it.
From one troubled paradise to the next. Susanna Freymark’s Losing February (Macmillan, 280pp, $29.99) is a chronicle of a woman’s voyage into middle-age despair and back. Bernie has left her exhausted marriage and is living in a shed on a property with ocean views somewhere in the vicinity of NSW’s Byron Bay. She works as a journalist but the novel is rapidly consumed by her romantic and sexual life.
It begins with the recrudescence of a university romance that never quite happened. When Bernie encounters former classmate Jack, they both realise they are in love and always have been. But what was possible once no longer is. While Bernie is free, Jack remains married; the tragedy of timing is irreconcilable.
Like many of us who experience problems in modern life, Bernie seeks recourse on the internet. In this case the web serves as a gateway to so much more. Bernie travels from cyber-sex to phone sex, to random assignations in motel rooms, to group sex and a Tupperware party with a difference involving a piece of equipment called the Sybian.
This is not nearly as complex a novel as Bay of Fires — Bernie’s character is primarily a vehicle for the sex and the lessons learned from the experience of it, and the story is refracted almost entirely through her need. Still there’s an admirable rawness in these pages that keeps the reader close. There’s a good chance too that more than one reader will find themselves Googling the Sybian.
Also set on the NSW north coast and beginning with divorce and loneliness is Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth novel, Mullumbimby (UQP, 296pp, $29.95). Proud Goorie woman Jo Breen has cobbled together enough cash from her divorce settlement to buy a farm. She lives there with her sullen but talented teenage daughter Ellen and spends her time riding her horses and trying to get the farm in shape without blowing the budget while holding down her job tending the local graveyard.
Jo’s world is thrown into romantic chaos with the arrival of Twoboy, a smart and sexy Aboriginal guy from Brisbane, who is returning to Bundjalung land with the hope of making a land claim based on the prior tenancy of his forebears, stolen from the area decades ago. Things hot up on all fronts and the plot thickens in interesting ways.
Mullumbimby is a hard book to categorise, a stew of styles, genres and influences. There are times when it lays on the identity politics too thickly, particularly in terms of Jo’s discourse with herself. But there’s also keen observation of the many social contradictions that north-coast NSW culture offers and some fascinating inversions of character expectations.
On the whole Jo is feisty, funny and likable. There’s a beautiful short scene where she feels herself becoming an army of Goorie women in defence of her daughter that is worth the price of entry alone.
Given it’s a novel that emphasises the importance of the land, it’s no surprise that Lucashenko excels in painting the landscape — in pure physical description, but also in imbuing it with spiritual significance. The highlight of the novel is perhaps the way it veers into a kind of indigenous magic realism and how this forces the reader to question many of their prior assumptions.
What’s also exciting is the use of indigenous languages, in this case Bundjalung and Yugambeh. Words such as mooki (ghosts) or jahjum (child) enrich the English surrounding them, and add to the sense that Mullumbimby is a story that couldn’t exist anywhere else.
Konkretion (UWA, 148pp, $29.95), a novella by West Australian novelist and poet Marion May Campbell, deals with what happens when the ‘‘ jouissance’’, as Derrida liked to call it, has all dried up.
Monique Piquet (formerly known as Monica Pickett) is an ageing ex-Marxist academic whose integrity has cost her. Following the death of her third husband, a celebrated human geographer, she experiences a kind of breakdown when she loses the plot while giving a lecture and is forced to watch, paralysed, from the lectern while her audience departs.
To escape, she heads to Paris, collective talisman of culture and theory, where she arranges to meet an ex-student, Angel, a rising star in the academic firmament, whose manuscript about the Baader-Meinhof gang she has just read, and which forms one narrative strand of the novella.
Studded with unexplained references and long complex sentences, Konkretion is tricky and demanding. There is no definable plot; rather, the cumulative effect is a mood. The narrative works as a series of interconnected shards that speak to each other without cohering into a whole.
The mood created is overwhelmingly one of disillusionment. It’s partly a critique of the fanaticism of the 1960s and 70s as practised by the Red Army Faction and their ilk. But the disillusionment also extends to the more cautious milieu of the academic Left, of which Monique is a part, and its failure to exist apart from the success structures of the bourgeoisie. Monique, who once scared undergraduates towards radicalism by forcing them to confront their privilege, now finds herself brittle, alone and largely invisible to the world, deprived of both institutional and familial comforts, and wondering whether her integrity was worth it.
Campbell deploys the linguistic milieu of poststructuralism and sometimes falls into its penchant for unnecessary opacity, but there’s a gimlet eye at work here too, sardonic, cantankerous and poetic in equal parts. Konkretion is a stroppy and difficult fictional glimpse into intellectual and political fashions only now becoming sufficiently historical to be properly assessed.