Sprawl­ing study of con­tem­po­rary life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Dianne Stub­bings

Win­dow Gods By Sally Mor­ri­son Hardie Grant, 393pp, $29.95 THE win­dow gods of the ti­tle of Sally Mor­ri­son’s new novel pay homage to Henri Matisse. They evoke the re­cur­ring mo­tif in his paint­ings of a view through a win­dow and rep­re­sent that mo­ment where Matisse’s use of colour, to quote Robert Hughes, “broke free”.

It’s this sense of un­in­hib­ited cre­ativ­ity that, in Win­dow Gods, haunts Mor­ri­son’s hero­ine, Iso­bel Coretti. A first-gen­er­a­tion fem­i­nist — and a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion artist — Iso­bel finds her­self mired in late mid­dle age, with its er­rant chil­dren and de­pen­dent par­ents.

Look­ing out of the large common room win­dow of her mother’s nurs­ing home, Iso­bel en­vi­sions the soar­ing artis­tic free­dom of Matisse’s work, a free­dom for which she aches as she con­tem­plates the di­rec­tion her own life has taken. “I am hold­ing this vi­sion in my head,” she re­flects, “and I want to land it but I don’t know how. I just have to store it along with the other images I’ve never man­aged to land …”

Read­ers fa­mil­iar with Mor­ri­son’s work will recog­nise Iso­bel from Mad Meg, Mor­ri­son’s break-through novel, which won the Na­tional Book Coun­cil’s Banjo Award in 1995. A ram­bling saga, rich in its telling, Mad Meg takes us back through sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of Iso­bel’s fam­ily, en­com­pass­ing her par­ent’s mar­riage (and its sub­se­quent break­down); Iso­bel’s af­fair with a lo­cal doc­tor; the es­tab­lish­ment of Mad Meg, a fem­i­nist art gallery run by Iso­bel and her sis­ter Al­le­gra; and Al­le­gra’s sui­cide.

Most of th­ese events are re­vis­ited in Win­dow Gods: Iso­bel eaves­drop­ping on con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing the open­ing of an art ex­hi­bi­tion that, rather awk­wardly, bring us up-to-date with all we need to know from the pre­vi­ous novel, par­tic­u­larly those af­ter­shocks from the demise of Mad Meg that still linger.

To pin down in a hand­ful of sen­tences the many frus­tra­tions trou­bling Iso­bel is a dif­fi­cult task, but at their core is the on­go­ing dis­pute with her step­sis­ter over their fa­ther’s paint­ings (Iso­bel’s fa­ther, Henry, was an artist of some renown), her jour­nal­ist son’s re­turn to Afghanistan (she hasn’t heard from him in weeks) and the search for a nurs­ing home for her 97-yearold mother (the fa­cil­ity in which she’d been en­sconced hav­ing closed for ren­o­va­tions).

Mor­ri­son’s hero­ines have a ten­dency to be durable, opin­ion­ated women, and Iso­bel is no ex­cep­tion. Her ag­gra­va­tions and her dis­ap­point­ments — with life, with gov­ern­ment, with the peo­ple around her — sit right on the sur­face of her soul. She rarely hes­i­tates to give her view of the world and to give it strongly, and the mus­ings em­bed­ded in her narration touch on any­thing and ev­ery­thing, from the anatomy of or­chids to Aus­tralia’s treat­ment of refugees.

There’s the sense that Mor­ri­son is aim­ing at some­thing of the all-en­com­pass­ing qual­ity of a novel such as Mid­dle­march (which is re­ferred to in Win­dow Gods), a com­pre­hen­sive ren­di­tion of Aus­tralian life and so­ci­ety at the be­gin­ning of the 21st cen­tury. Yet, de­spite the stag­ger­ing breadth of what Mor­ri­son tack­les, it tends to read like an au­thor work­ing their way through a check­list of con­tem­po­rary is­sues.

Sim­i­larly, Mor­ri­son has a ten­dency to over­load her writ­ing with metaphors, from the win­dow gods of the ti­tle to images from the world of sci­ence, to the myth­i­cal Ari­adne and the thread that led Th­e­seus out of the labyrinth. It may be Mor­ri­son’s point — that when faced with a life that no longer makes sense to us we con­stantly reach for the pat­terns and images that will stamp some sort of mean­ing on our ex­pe­ri­ence — but she doesn’t seem en­tirely in con­trol of her im­agery and it ends by sprawl­ing a lit­tle out of her reach.

What sus­tains Win­dow Gods is the authenticity of Iso­bel’s voice. There’s an allure to her per­spec­tive on the world around her, and Mor­ri­son cap­tures well the ob­ses­sive anger and re­sent­ment that comes of am­bi­tion thwarted: “The world looks around, sees some­one ca­pa­ble and dumps its prob­lems there, not for a mo­ment con­sid­er­ing that the dumped-upon are try­ing to cre­ate their lives, too.”

But there is some­thing about the way­ward­ness of the nar­ra­tive, its me­an­der­ing, di­gres­sive qual­ity that, as the novel pro­gresses, ex­as­per­ates more than it charms. This is par­tic­u­larly the case dur­ing Iso­bel’s ex­cur­sion to Afghanistan, pas­sages that read more like a travel mem­oir, lack­ing as they do the im­me­di­acy and ur­gency you may ex­pect of some­one search­ing for their miss­ing son.

The dis­ap­point­ment is that the story-line that is the true heart of this novel — the bond be­tween Iso­bel and her mother, Stella, and the im­pact that bond has had on Iso­bel’s life as an artist — tends to be over­whelmed by ev­ery­thing else Mor­ri­son has go­ing on.

There is in Iso­bel’s re­la­tion­ship with her mother all the warmth and laugh­ter, pain and calamity that comes when two strong women are, for bet­ter or worse, bound to­gether. And when­ever Win­dow Gods set­tles back into its ex­plo­ration of th­ese women’s con­joined lives — and lets go of the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of Mad Meg, which are al­lowed to bleed too freely into this new work — this is a novel that, to bor­row from Iso­bel’s vi­sion of Matisse, truly sings. Woman Seated in an Arm­chair

(1940) by Henri Matisse, whose artis­tic free­dom is some­thing as­pired to by Sally Mor­ri­son’s pro­tag­o­nist Iso­bel

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