Animal passions run high in shearers’ tale
Coming Rain By Stephen Daisley Text Publishing, 320pp, $29.99 After winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2011 with his first novel, Traitor, Stephen Daisley, then in his mid-50s, evidently drew breath before deciding that its successor, Coming Rain, should be just as daring, if very different, in conception.
Traitor is the tale of a decorated, modest New Zealand soldier, David Monroe, who seeks a separate peace. Detailed to mind a Turkish prisoner of war, Dr Mahmoud, he attempts to escape with him. When that fails, Monroe is subjected to brutal field punishment, before his bravery as a stretcher-bearer leads to a pardon, and eventually to the resumption of his pre-war
May 2-3, 2015 life as the best lamber in his district of New Zealand. There is wonder at the heart of a novel that is finally less concerned with the horrors of war than with the possibilities for redemption that these cannot foreclose.
To each of his novels NZ-born Daisley, who lives in Western Australia, brings his experience of military service and of rural work, of their implements and the skills required to use them. His imagination is vitalised by the visceral — shearing, killing, saddling and riding horses, using tools, accommodating to whatever physical surroundings present themselves.
In Coming Rain, Daisley focuses on two WA shearers. Lew McCleod is an emotionally callow 21-year-old who grew up without knowing his father and who could shear 180 sheep a day by the age of 16. Painter Hayes is the gnarled older man who has taken care of Lew for years. It is the mid-1950s. The pair find themselves in a place beyond their experience: Cottesloe Beach. ‘‘Got no bearings here boy,’’ Hayes tells Lew before starting a fight with lifeguards who resent an old ruffian in ‘‘a blue Jackie Howe shearer’s singlet’’. Meanwhile, Lew falls for Maureen O’Reilly, who has walked out of the ocean — and who lost her husband in World War II.
This violent, disconcerting episode is not the beginning of the novel. Here are its first sentences: ‘‘The dingo ran as if she had been here forever. Loose jointed, her tongue wet and long and eyes nonchalant as she travelled.’’ Daisley’s narrative moves between his imagining of the cunning consciousness of a hunted, hungry and pregnant animal, and the world of the humans in the vicinity of Drysdale Downs Station whose paths she crosses.
Running, she seeks ‘‘the cover of scrub land, fringes and hollows’’. For this landscape, Daisley provides the Aboriginal names. What ‘‘yonga’’, ‘‘karrik’’, ‘‘nyarnyee’’, ‘‘balga’’ and ‘‘cumbungi’’ signify of flora and fauna is made clear by their contexts. Describing the movements of the dingo, with an eye trained in the observation and understanding of physical details, Daisley writes of how ‘‘her thirst had been eating her and now she was eating the water’’. All the time, the pursuit continues.
Lew and Painter have taken work on Drysdale Downs, whose permanent residents are the owner, John Drysdale, his daughter Clara, first glimpsed as ‘‘sixteen and sitting a white gelding as if she had grown out of it’’, and Jimmy, the Malay Chinese cook. There are ‘‘no blackfellas’’, for ‘‘old man Drysdale and Dingo Smith persuaded them to move down south’’.
Daisley carefully gives the names of the things on the station, establishing a parallel specialist vocabulary to that of the Aboriginal language. There are Traveller hats, a Henry Disston and Sons crosscut saw, Sumac pumps, Baird showers, Coleman lamps and Kelly axes.
In this world, the naming of the objects that