Sprawling study of contemporary life
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