HIS REAL SUBJECT, PERHAPS, IS LOCAL HISTORY’, A VAGUE ENTITY, AND THE MESMERISING ARC THAT IT FOLLOWS
What then, or who, is this story about? Are there just too many characters; is there not enough story? The same questions have troubled readers of Tolstoy, so go easy. Finding yourself bewildered may be part of the deal.
Indeed, McDonald is a fan of this salutary ‘‘ sense of bewilderment’’. He would like his readers to exercise patience. His real subject, perhaps, is local ‘‘ history’’, a vague entity, and the mesmerising arc that it follows.
An ambitious, 20th-century sweep is permitted to remove us from dramatic individual dilemmas. Previously, McDonald has taken epochs of the nation’s past as his starting point, as in Mr Darwin’s Shooter (1998) and The Ballad of Desmond Kale, which won the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.
Historians may discover,
other historical fiction, something to chomp down on in The Following (they made a meal of Kate Grenville’s work). However, McDonald has got away with it before and it seems he will again. His dense, idiosyncratic prose and elliptical storytelling style create a membrane through which the delineaments of history are glimpsed through a glass, darkly, and it is the ‘‘ ghost’’ of history we experience.
In Desmond Kale, McDonald achieved a bold balance between the pull of the story and a delight in language that the ballad genre itself captures. The Following is different; it braves a baffling tangent that just about maintains momentum, creatively revitalising components of the (what some may call white and male) Australian psyche: the worker, the battler, the working man’s hero, the bushman, the bushman with a dash of colonial class.
McDonald’s storytelling can be as defiant and textually raunchy as that of Peter Carey or Richard Flanagan, as breathtakingly poetic as Tim Winton’s. While Carey has written into a rich vein of Australiana-writing from New York, McDonald has stayed home, relishing the stark, bright landscapes of NSW, living on the farms that have nurtured his imaginative life. Though he has considered moving on from such sacred places, here they are again in The Following: ‘‘ out past the edge of Bathurst’’, we are in ‘‘ narrow, bleak country of ringbarked trees with southerlies aching to the back teeth, with scoured gullies opening mile after mile to