So­lace in a per­sonal an­tipodes

Got­land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Geordie Wil­liamson

By Fiona Capp Fourth Es­tate, 293pp, $24.99

‘ THERE are a great many things which can­not with­stand the im­pla­ca­ble, bright light of the pub­lic realm,’’ philoso­pher Han­nah Arendt wrote in 1958. ‘‘ There, only what is con­sid­ered to be rel­e­vant, wor­thy of be­ing seen or heard, can be tol­er­ated . . .’’ We can only won­der what she would have made of to­day’s me­dia land­scape with its fre­netic news cy­cles, pri­vacy-negat­ing tech­nol­ogy and al­most sys­temic re­sis­tance to com­plex­ity or depth.

A half cen­tury ago, Arendt could still main­tain that the pub­lic realm — the place of pol­i­tics old as the Greek agora, where men of prop­erty used fine words to ef­fect change and gather glory — and the pri­vate realm, that ‘‘ shad­owy in­te­rior of the house­hold’’ where women, chil­dren and slaves per­formed those tasks that sus­tained ba­sic hu­man needs, were dis­tinct. But this is no longer the case. Fiona Capp’s stately, thoughtful, slow-burner of a novel lo­cates the point where pri­vate and pub­lic realm threat­ens to break down, then pro­ceeds to wring ev­ery last drop of hu­man drama from the col­lapse.

Got­land’s heroine, Es­ther

Chatwin,

is

a school­teacher. There is a bedrock de­cency about her, a quiet ide­al­ism that man­i­fests it­self in a ded­i­ca­tion to her stu­dents. But the class­room is also an en­vi­ron­ment in which the shy and psy­cho­log­i­cally del­i­cate woman can cre­ate a haven from a world she finds in­creas­ingly hos­tile. Hers is the vo­ca­tional equiv­a­lent of a panic room.

And god knows she needs it, since at the novel’s out­set we learn that her hus­band David, a for­mer stu­dent rad­i­cal who left academe as a re­luc­tant con­script to one of Aus­tralia’s ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties, is likely to be el­e­vated to lead­er­ship only months out from a fed­eral elec­tion fol­low­ing the sud­den death of his close friend and po­lit­i­cal men­tor. We un­der­stand that Es­ther’s grief at the loss of this el­der states­man is com­pli­cated. She misses the man deeply but she also dreads the al­ter­na­tive fu­ture his death has opened up for her fam­ily.

David was a cam­pus an­ar­chist, Quixote with a mega­phone, when Es­ther first met and fell in love with him. But she has watched with in­creas­ing trep­i­da­tion through the years as her free-think­ing part­ner ac­com­mo­dated him­self to the less ad­mirable com­pro­mises de­manded by pub­lic life. She fears their mar­riage will be tested and she worries about David’s re­la­tion­ship with his tal­ented and mal­con­tented teenage daugh­ter, Kate. Fi­nally she worries for her own hard-won equi­lib­rium: Each day I watch David try­ing to rec­on­cile what we once be­lieved with the way power

‘‘ All I am re­ally sure of,’’ Es­ther con­cludes, ‘‘ is that I’m the kind of per­son who is hap­pi­est at the edge of things, watch­ing and dream­ing. You can see more clearly from there.’’ A per­spec­tive, in other words, sim­i­lar to that of the author: the fig­ure who lis­tens hard and hoards scraps of the real; who ab­di­cates from grinds on, and I see him be­com­ing hard­ened and im­pa­tient with those still free to dream. And then I ask my­self, if anar­chism could be ap­plied here and now, how would I like it? I hate com­mit­tees and meet­ings of any kind, not to men­tion the tedium of ev­ery­one hav­ing their say. I just want to get on with run­ning the class­room and my life as I see fit which makes me sound dan­ger­ously like the in­di­vid­u­al­ist lib­er­als we used to de­spise.

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