The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright

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.

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