NEW AUSTRALIAN FICTION:
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.