Be­reaved men go to the brink in Ned Kelly coun­try

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

Joy­ful By Robert Hill­man Text Pub­lish­ing, 352pp, $29.95 THERE can’t be many nov­els with ti­tles more at vari­ance with their sub­ject mat­ter than Joy­ful. It is far from a joy­ous work. In­deed its sub­ject is grief — loss so re­lent­less and dis­abling that it pitches over into mad­ness. Though the novel is mainly set in ru­ral Vic­to­ria, the psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ten­sity of its pages feels closer to At­tic tragedy: Euripi­des in Wan­garatta. I kept re­call­ing Pier Paolo Pa­solini’s film ver­sion of Medea, in which a kohl-eyed Maria Cal­las stum­bles through a bar­barous sun-blasted land­scape, death-haunted, vengeance-bent.

Though read­ers will likely reel away from Joy­ful as though from a bomb blast, this is not the novel’s sole man­ner and mode. There are

June 28-29, 2014 also mo­ments of grace when, along­side the two men whose suf­fer­ings are cen­tral to its nar­ra­tive, we are granted com­pen­satory vi­sions.

For Leon Joyce, a rich, sleek, ur­bane and rather cold-fish Mel­bourne book­seller, the vi­sion is Tess Wa­chow­icz, a beauty about town un­hap­pily mar­ried to a boor­ish Pol­ish mil­lion­aire, though she is well-re­garded as a clas­si­cal mu­si­cian and broad­caster on mu­si­cal sub­jects. Joyce has no in­ter­est in her sex­u­ally — his de­viance con­sists of an ut­ter ab­sence of de­sire — but he is des­per­ate for her to wear the ex­quis­ite cou­ture gowns he has been col­lect­ing for decades.

Tess loves the clothes and wears them mag­nif­i­cently; and the two soon come to an ac­com­mo­da­tion. She will leave her wife-beat­ing hus­band and marry Leon. She will dress for him, chastely share his bed, and in re­turn he will take her and her chil­dren in. Cru­cially, she re­tains the right to screw whomever she cares to.

It hap­pens that Tess is as li­bidi­nous as she is beau­ti­ful — men drop about her like au­tumn flies, yet Leon ac­cepts this as the nec­es­sary cost of their bar­gain. He set­tles for a pas­sive aes­thetic wor­ship that grad­u­ally shades into love: With the pass­ing of an­niver­saries Tess’s beauty meant less and less to him; ev­ery­thing or­di­nary meant more. He gath­ered gar­lands of her com­mon mo­ments. Cav­ernous yawns at the break­fast ta­ble that dis­played her old­fash­ioned sil­ver fill­ings; arm over her head in the bath­room rasp­ing way at the stip­pled flesh of her armpits. He thought: ‘‘No­body told me.’’

Imag­ine Henry James’s Gil­bert Os­mond from The Por­trait of a Lady cured of his depth­less self­ish­ness and shal­low snob­bery by Is­abel Archer’s poor do­mes­tic habits. When Tess is struck down sud­denly by the cancer that will kill her, Leon is sur­prised again by the re­serves of care that he possesses.

It is Tess’s death that opens the novel, and that pro­vokes Leon’s un­rav­el­ling. Distraught at los­ing her, Leon be­gins to col­lect her be­long­ings, sort­ing and grad­ing them as if as­sem­bling a cat­a­logue of rare books. Then old emails re­veal the ex­is­tence of a Pol­ish artist and poet named Daniel, a dis­tant con­nec­tion of Tess’s first hus­band who ap­par­ently was the love of her life through­out the union with Leon. Tess calls Daniel ‘‘monster’’ and rev­els in her sex­ual abase­ment to him; Leon is re­ferred to merely as ‘‘por­poise’’ (echo­ing Vladimir Nabokov, who called Henry James, that leg­en­dar­ily asex­ual fig­ure, the ‘‘great pale por­poise’’). She went so far as to set up Daniel at a coun­try house be­long­ing to Leon but never vis­ited by him — a beau­ti­ful, di­lap­i­dated pile out­side the small coun­try town of Yackan­dan­dah named Joy­ful. On learn­ing this, Leon drinks a bot­tle of sin­gle malt and hops in his car to con­front the man.

But to in­stall the swag­ger­ingly ni­hilis­tic Daniel, Tess had to eject old friends of hers and

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