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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

JANE Raw­son’s A Wrong Turn at the Of­fice of Un­made Lists (Tran­sit Lounge, 320pp, $29.95) is one of those won­der­fully quirky nov­els that gid­dies with the qual­ity of its imag­i­na­tion. Raw­son, a for­mer Lonely Planet guide­book writer, now an edi­tor at jour­nal­ism web­site The Con­ver­sa­tion, has con­cocted a play­ful fic­tion that breaks the rules of nar­ra­tive and gets away with it.

The ac­tion be­gins in Melbourne, but a Melbourne imag­ined in the af­ter­math of en­vi­ron­men­tal calamity. It’s a refugee city, manned by a UN peace­keep­ing mis­sion, that has drawn peo­ple from across a glob­ally warmed world. For the vast ma­jor­ity ex­is­tence is a day-to-day strug­gle. Caddy, who has lost her hus­band fol­low­ing the ex­plo­sion of their neigh­bour­ing oil fa­cil­ity, turns tricks and wheels and deals her way to sub­sis­tence, spend­ing any ex­cess on vodka and tonic. In her spare time she writes short sto­ries, al­though not with the goal of get­ting an ad­vance. Ray is her friend and pimp. A knock­about bloke of Abo­rig­i­nal her­itage with a nose for a deal, he does his best to help keep his mate Caddy afloat.

Raw­son’s char­ac­ters are warm and in­trigu­ing, the in­ven­tive logic of a dystopian Melbourne ex­cel­lent. Her guide­book pedi­gree makes sense as we can de­tect the bor­row­ing of places from Brazil­ian fave­las to Asian in­ter­net cafes. But this is re­ally just the be­gin­ning of the imag­i­na­tive jour­ney. In his deal-mak­ing Ray ac­quires a se­ries of old maps whose folds have a por­tal ef­fect. Mean­while two kids are try­ing to ful­fil their dead par­ents’ mad ideal of vis­it­ing all of Amer­ica, which they have di­vided into squares.

In some ways, A Wrong Turn at the Of­fice of Un­made Lists is rem­i­nis­cent of early Paul Auster, most notably In the Coun­try of Last Things. There’s some­thing too of the sheer sto­ry­telling joy that you find in Neil Gaiman, the mean­ing sub­sidiary to the nar­ra­tive ad­ven­ture. While early Peter Carey is an ex­cep­tion, we don’t of­ten see this kind of fic­tion in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture. It’s the strand of the novel af­fil­i­ated with Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote rather than the later work of the re­al­ists. Raw­son has taken risks with plau­si­bil­ity and tri­umphed.

Given the large part the min­ing boom oc­cu­pies in the national imag­i­na­tion and econ­omy, it’s in­trigu­ing how lit­tle artis­tic ex­plo­ration it has re­ceived. The scale of the en­ter­prise alone is fas­ci­nat­ing, as are the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of fly-in, fly-out cul­ture, while the com­bi­na­tion of wealth and mis­ery in some of our min­ing mag­nates speaks elo­quently to the tragi­com­edy of the hu­man con­di­tion.

Robert Schofield’s Heist (Allen & Un­win, 392pp, $29.99) shows how sim­patico min­ing cul­ture is with the crime genre. En­gi­neer Gareth Ford is an al­co­holic. Sep­a­rated from his wife, sen­ti­men­tal about his young daugh­ter, he is work­ing at a gold­mine out­side Kal­go­or­lie when it is robbed. Framed as a sus­pect, he ends up on the run from both the rob­bers and cor­rupt West Aus­tralian po­lice. The pur­suit takes him from the mines to Kal­go­or­lie and across the WA coun­try­side to Perth with its fast money and sud­den so­ci­ety.

The first part of Heist is a cracker. Schofield, who has worked in the WA gold­fields as an en­gi­neer, re­ally brings the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment of the mines and its sur­rounds alive. He does well, too, with his por­trait of Kal­go­or­lie on race day, with its pubs, broth­els, drunks and ec­centrics.

Ford is an un­com­fort­able but ef­fec­tive amal­gam of stub­born­ness and bro­ken­ness and the hy­per-mas­cu­line lan­guage of the mot­ley crew he col­lects is re­alised su­perbly.

The last third of the novel loses some­thing of this flavour when it moves to Perth and suf­fers as it be­comes more con­ven­tional and im­plau­si­ble. Un­nec­es­sary tie-ups in the res­o­lu­tion over­bal­ance the plot and di­min­ish the res­o­nance. Still, for its set­ting and char­ac­ters, Heist is a wel­come ad­di­tion to the shelves of Aus­tralian crime fic­tion.

More than one writer has re­turned to the 1950s from the de­sire to lever­age the moral grav­ity of an era where po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion and so­cial trans­gres­sion had per­sonal con­se­quences. In Who We Were (Text, 272pp, $29.99), Lucy Neave, who es­chewed a ca­reer in ve­teri­nary science for one in lit­er­a­ture, uses this height­ened moral en­vi­ron­ment to ex­plore the com­plex re­la­tion­ship of am­bi­tion, ethics, pol­i­tics and self­ish­ness, par­tic­u­larly through the prisms of gen­der, science and the Cold War.

Annabel dreams of be­com­ing a sci­en­tist, but she has to win a schol­ar­ship to the newly founded Women’s Col­lege at the Univer­sity of Melbourne if she wants to pur­sue her dream, as her par­ents won’t pay for her to go to univer­sity. Her brother Ralph is al­ready study­ing there, as is his friend Bill, with whom the pre­co­cious Annabel falls in love. Their ro­mance is in­ter­rupted by the war. But the ab­sence of men gives Annabel’s sci­en­tific ca­reer a boost it oth­er­wise wouldn’t have re­ceived. Such teas­ing moral am­biva­lences are at the core of Neave’s fic­tional ex­plo­rations.

Af­ter the war, Bill re­turns and an­nounces he is go­ing to fur­ther his sci­en­tific stud­ies in Amer­ica. Annabel agrees to marry him and they leave for New York, where si­mul­ta­ne­ously they get in­volved in bi­o­log­i­cal re­search for the mil­i­tary and the pol­i­tics of the Cold War. Who We Were is a tale told sim­ply with great poise and as­sur­ance. Neave has a strong nar­ra­tive sense and a gift for the evo­ca­tion of time and place. Against the love story, her ruth­less pur­suit of truth for her pro­tag­o­nist makes the moral quan­daries of the novel res­onate. Annabel is by no means a sim­ple heroine and as Neave brings alive the forces of his­tory I won­dered what the same un­flinch­ing gaze might make of the moral am­biva­lences we in­habit to­day.

Fin Ris­ing (Re­ally Blue Books, ebook, $4.40) is set in a de­cay­ing aris­to­cratic es­tate in Ire­land at the close of the 20th cen­tury. By Paul W. New­man, the Ir­ish-born Aus­tralian three-time Stan­ley award­win­ning il­lus­tra­tor, it’s a whimsical tale cen­tred on gen­er­a­tional tran­si­tion in the Comer­ford fam­ily. Pa­tri­arch Henry teeters on the verge of ex­tinc­tion thanks to his love of good things that are bad for you and his con­tempt for mod­ern medicine. Henry’s chil­dren Roger and Lorelei are dys­func­tional adults, one cruel, one trag­i­cally pro­mis­cu­ous, a legacy of ma­ter­nal aban­don­ment and the fact Henry’s nat­u­ral af­fec­tion is for Fin, the son of his es­tate man­ager and gamekeeper, who is a bril­liant fly fish­er­man.

They have all gath­ered for Henry’s an­nual fish­ing com­pe­ti­tion, held to catch the fa­bled King, a rarely sighted rain­bow trout of gi­gan­tic pro­por­tions. Fin Ris­ing is a pleas­ant novel in a comic mode. The de­scrip­tions and char­ac­ters are finely drawn and there is much to en­joy. The fly-fish­ing scenes suc­ceed be­cause they whet the ap­petite for more. New­man isn’t shy of crack­ing a joke, ei­ther, and there are lines that are laugh-out-loud funny. I par­tic­u­larly liked the cheesy ap­peal of one char­ac­ter ask­ing the mid­dle-aged cafe owner of the Comer­fords’ neigh­bour­ing vil­lage whether her Brazil­ian in­ter­net lover was ‘‘ the Juan’’.

De­spite be­ing set at the turn of the 21st cen­tury, Fin Ris­ing has a retro feel, anal­o­gous to watch­ing Down­ton Abbey or re­vis­it­ing the comic bril­liance of PG Wode­house. While not such a stand­out in the genre, it’s good read­ing; its plea­sures, like fly fish­ing, apt to rup­ture the smooth rip­ples of the sur­face.

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