Were­wolves get their day in the sun

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kirsten Tran­ter

By Blood We Live By Glen Dun­can Text Pub­lish­ing, 473pp, $29.99 GLEN Dun­can’s new book com­pletes the tril­ogy that be­gan with The Last Were­wolf (2011), fea­tur­ing the de­pressed, eru­dite monster Jake Mar­lowe. When By Blood We Live be­gins, were­wolf Talulla Demetriou, the main char­ac­ter in the sec­ond book, Talulla Ris­ing (2012), is liv­ing in a frag­ile state of do­mes­tic har­mony, re­united with her two were­wolf ba­bies and her lover, Walker. But she has be­come ob­sessed with Remshi, the an­cient vam­pire who once kid­napped her son, and de­cides to seek him out.

Remshi is an equal pro­tag­o­nist in the novel: he and Talulla take turns nar­rat­ing the story, each cat­a­logu­ing their strange long­ing for and dreams about the other, while ac­tion-packed mur­der and mayhem hap­pens all around.

For some rea­son, the were­wolf has not achieved the heights of mass pop­u­lar­ity en­joyed in re­cent times by its dis­tant rel­a­tives, the dumb apoc­a­lyp­tic zom­bie and sexy vam­pire. The were­wolf in an­i­mal form is Mr Hyde — all an­i­mal, all in­stinct — to the vam­pire’s eter­nally cool Dr Jekyll. The idea of a di­vided self, hu­man and in­hu­man, is what’s in­ter­est­ing to Dun­can, and the idea a per­son could not only bear the pres­ence of the monster within, but ex­ult in it.

April 5-6, 2014

Dun­can’s were­wolves do not kill with the re­luc­tance or mercy of a thought­ful vam­pire. They in­stead de­rive sav­age plea­sure from the suf­fer­ing of their vic­tims: “It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them,” Talulla ad­mits.

But Talulla and the other were­wolves act out their vi­o­lent urges only at the ir­re­sistible com­mand of “the Curse”, and Dun­can of­fers a con­trast with those hu­man be­ings who have no such ex­cuse for their ac­tions. Pornog­ra­phers who de­light in de­grad­ing women, men who rape girls, moth­ers who of­fer their chil­dren as vic­tims: these are the real mon­sters, Dun­can sug­gests, and they live among us.

In one sub­plot, a young woman, Jus­tine, uses her new vam­pire pow­ers to ex­act re­venge on the sadis­tic men who abused her as a child, but must suf­fer the hor­ror of in­cor­po­rat­ing all their mem­o­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences when she drinks their blood. Each book in the tril­ogy has been sat­u­rated with sex, but By Blood We Live feels more dis­turbingly suf­fused with sex­ual vi­o­lence against women, in­voked as an icon of hu­man cru­elty and imag­ined in creep­ily lurid de­tail.

In an aside to the reader, Remshi per­forms his own em­bar­rass­ment at be­ing in­volved in such a con­ven­tional genre story: “Yes. I’m afraid there’s a book of prophe­cies. I know. I can only apol­o­gise.” Dun­can is prone to blud­geon­ing read­ers with lit­er­ary ref­er­ences as if anx­ious to prove the novel’s in­tel­lec­tual worth: these might be mon­sters, but they are well-read, philo­soph­i­cal ones, un­afraid to re­fer to Sylvia Plath or Mar­cel Proust at the slight­est provo­ca­tion.

Remshi, Talulla and oth­ers be­come fix­ated on ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions, and won­der ob­ses­sively if the co­in­ci­dences and pat­terns they see every­where in­di­cate there is “a su­per­nat­u­ral scheme of things. It’s “as if life’s like a stupid f..king movie or a stupid f..king book”, Jus­tine says. All the char­ac­ters make some ver­sion of this ob­ser­va­tion, which has some ap­peal­ing post­mod­ern, self-con­scious irony, but be­comes strained with each rep­e­ti­tion.

Jus­tine turns out to be right, in a sur­real, lit­eral sense: Remshi’s life, to his dis­may, grad­u­ally turns into a par­al­lel ver­sion of Robert Brown­ing’s bleak poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, as though the au­thor’s own com­pul­sive habits of al­lu­sion have turned toxic for his char­ac­ters.

It is dis­ap­point­ing that the story it­self, about which all these char­ac­ters are so in­trigu­ingly self-aware, is not plot­ted with more of the care­ful de­sign and in­ten­tion that is as­cribed to des­tiny, but is in­stead some­what in­co­her­ent and too of­ten pre­dictable.

At his strong­est, Dun­can writes with wit, in­sight and ex­u­ber­ant style, al­though there’s a same­ness to the voices of the dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tors: it does seem strange that 40,000 years of liv­ing the cos­mopoli­tan bach­e­lor vam­pire life would pro­duce more or less the same kind of wise­crack­ing, arch tone as that of a young were­wolf woman.

But some of the best pas­sages evoke the sparkling bravura and en­er­getic rhythm of Martin Amis’s early nov­els — view­ing the “shock­ing, per­fect con­trast” of a woman vam­pire’s “cold white skin and warm red mouth”, Remshi tell us, “I thought: Beauty just keeps com­ing into the world and pass­ing away, com­ing in and pass­ing away. You can’t blame beauty. Beauty doesn’t know what else to do.” Kirsten Tran­ter is the au­thor of the nov­els The Legacy and A Com­mon Loss.

Glen Dun­can

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