Painful jour­neys on di­verse paths

Traces of Ab­sence Light­ning

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce Peter Pierce

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

Felipe,

an­other

priest,

had

(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.

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