Painful journeys on diverse paths
Traces of Absence Lightning
By Susan Holoubek Pan Macmillan, 314pp, $29.99 By Felicity Volk Picador, 382pp, $29.99
THREE first novels by women — Romy Ash’s Floundering, Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved and Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain — featured on the all-female shortlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award. Two more may well be in contention in 2014: Susan Holoubek’s Traces of Absence and Felicity Volk’s Lightning.
The former followed an increasingly worn path. The novel was part of Holoubek’s creative writing PhD from the University of Adelaide. By contrast, Volk had worked in foreign affairs, with postings in Bangladesh and Laos. She did, however, like many before her, spend time at Varuna, the writers’ retreat in the Blue Mountains, before completing her book.
Each novel is driven by urgent travel. Holoubek’s protagonist, school vice-principal Dee Sutherland, makes repeated pilgrimages to the same place, Buenos Aires, in search of her missing daughter, Corrie. In Lightning, pathologist Persia Schumann embarks on an odyssey into the interior of Australia, accompanied by Pakistani refugee and former plastic surgeon Ahmed Khan.
Each author draws from and adds to that well of Australian story, formulated in fact, fiction and folklore: the lost child. In Dee’s case, her torment is the more acute because she does not know whether her daughter is missing or dead. Has she been the victim of random violence or has she chosen to disappear?
No such uncertainty for Persia: on the day of the 2003 bushfires in Canberra, and in the absence of a midwife, she is forced to deliver her daughter by herself. The child is born dead. Preserved in cedar oil, the baby’s body is central to the few possessions that she takes on her journey, first to NSW and then far west towards the former Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg. There, long ago, her missionary great-great grandmother married an Afghan camel driver.
The agonised consciousness of both Dee and Persia of their severance from all that might have been, their strategies to stem despair, are at the forefront of books that are otherwise strikingly different in tone.
Traces of Absence begins in 2005, when Dee receives the news that her 18-year-old daughter has gone missing in Argentina. She is informed by Mario Torres, who had previously spent time in Adelaide with the Sutherland family. Not long before, Dee’s husband, Ross, had died suddenly of heart failure. She was not present. Guiltily and ceaselessly she reflects that ‘‘ I was having dinner with a friend’’.
In 2009, for what she expects may be the last time, Dee makes a seventh journey to Argentina. It begins with a routine visit to the Australian embassy: ‘‘. . . what had started out as desperate hopelessness four years ago had become a sad courtesy to those who had assisted her through the worst times.’’ The Torres family members are her strongest supporters. Mario’s mother, Alicia, has lost her brother, Aurelio. He ‘‘ had been one of those who disappeared’’ during the military dictatorship of the 1980s.
As Dee reflects, ‘‘ everyone had lost somebody and the particular hardship of unresolved endings was something she shared with many others’’. Holoubek sketches the historical and topographical backdrops of her story acutely and unobtrusively.
Rightly confident in her narrative skills, Holoubek is not afraid of coincidence. Dee is befriended by a gay priest, Stephen (‘‘I’ve been asked to undertake some discernment about my ongoing vocation.’’). His murdered lover, Corrie.
At a chance visit to a photographic exhibition, Dee sees a picture that might be of her daughter, so she takes a ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay to seek out its provenance. More tantalising mentions of glimpses of her daughter follow from members of a convent. Compulsively, Dee steels herself: ‘‘ There was always something to do. Some act of defiant organisation to keep the chaos at bay.’’ She is led into the world of paco addicts, the poverty and danger of the barrios, and more benignly, to amateur theatre groups. Which of these settings might be harbouring her daughter? Holoubek has taken us too far, with a measured but intensifying suspense, to allow a simple resolution.
Traces of Absence
(not the happiest title) ends in uncertainty, but with assurance true to the gifts on show throughout this fine debut. Holoubek’s confident, plain style contrasts with the extravagant stories and relentless word play of Volk’s Lightning (but do not be deterred by the blurb’s threat of ‘‘ a glorious feat of magic realism’’).
In Europe in 1922 (where Volk begins and where, after many coils and detours, she returns) ‘‘ it was a summer of mad winds’’. In Schwerbad, Germany, Herr Mahler makes his internationally renowned Prima Pretzels (their recipe spiced with kat, his narcotic of choice)
known and takes on Lauren as his young assistant.
Jump eight decades and we are in the always absorbing company of Lauren’s granddaughter, Persia. In her absence of a partner, to other expectant mothers she ‘‘ represented a distant and troubled land to which the rest were glad they would never have to travel’’. Persia’s social solitariness has made affairs easier. She was ‘‘ answerable to no one and was never missed’’.
In a novel full of stories of people uprooted or uneasily settled (‘‘the nomad’s life is not a birthright, it’s a mantle’’), Persia sets off at first alone, resolute if desperate, into an Australia that Volk richly and sometimes shockingly anatomises. Leaving a city ‘‘ dishevelled, and irritable with upheaval’’, Persia is assaulted by a brick-throwing woman, seated by the ashes of her home. To the taunt ‘‘ Share the pain’’, Persia replies: ‘‘ I have.’’
When her car breaks down, she is given a lift by a garrulous truck driver whose Kenworth is pulling a Mad Hatter carnival ride. In a grisly, but hilarious vignette, this ends in carnage outside the Grafton hospital. From now on, Persia will travel with Ahmed, one of those men who had ‘‘ boarded the Indonesian fishing boats which sailed them out of statelessness, to become someone else’s rank catch of the day’’.
For a while, Persia feigns muteness. Ahmed’s response is to offer soliloquies, provoked by her silence but imbued with grace. Some of the stories are about his own flight from Pakistan and from likely revenge for his adultery. Others are parables of heartbreak.
When Persia speaks again at last, it is to say of the dead baby that ‘‘ I love her to the moon and back’’.
Among its formal dimensions, Lightning is a picaresque novel in which the hero and heroine undergo adventures, comic and grim, in the course of a journey that does not unfold as intended. After Lightning Ridge (where opal miners dwell in ‘‘ the companionless caverns of their claims’’), Broken Hill and points west, Ahmed modestly asks for what seems a due entitlement: ‘‘ I would like to arrive somewhere. And stop.’’ What Volk grants him, and Persia, is perhaps a benediction, but one as provisional and insecure in its consequences as Holoubek found for Dee in Traces of Absence.
These are two novels to savour. They brim with invention and intelligence. Their authors calculate risks and then take the dare. They are novels that seem more the accomplished works of mid-career than the brilliant start that each of them marks.