The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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