Of fam­i­lies and floods

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

Twelve years have passed since the pub­li­ca­tion of Rod Jones’s fourth novel, Swan Bay, and it is al­most 30 years since his first, Ju­lia Par­adise, which was short­listed for the Miles Franklin. He has re­turned to print with The Moth­ers. While Swan Bay probed the de­struc­tive ten­sions within a group of four peo­ple in a Vic­to­rian coastal town, The Moth­ers — which is twice its length — spans nearly three quar­ters of a cen­tury in the loosely con­nected lives of an ex­tended fam­ily.

Most of them are res­i­dents of in­ner Mel­bourne sub­urbs be­fore gen­tri­fi­ca­tion trans­formed them — Footscray, Sed­don, Essendon, Fitzroy. This is also a care­fully doc­u­mented chron­i­cle of Aus­tralian so­cial his­tory. The mood, in con­trast with some of Jones’s pre­vi­ous fic­tion, is dour rather than dash­ing. One guesses at his hard labour with a work that fi­nally he re­lin­quished to his pub­lish­ers. The novel has an old-fash­ioned feel, al­most of the ‘‘dreary, dun­coloured off­spring of jour­nal­is­tic re­al­ism’’ that Pa­trick White reck­oned characterised Aus­tralian fic­tion in the 1950s.

Jones sets us on the way with Alma (first of the moth­ers) en­coun­tered in a park in Footscray in 1917. Fred­er­ick Fair­weather, wastrel, chancer and fa­ther of her chil­dren Teddy and Olive, has just brought his mis­tress home. Alma does not ac­cede to this ar­range­ment, and leaves. Prov­i­den­tially, she is be­friended by Al­fred Lovett and his mother (re­cently of the Huon Val­ley in Tas­ma­nia), who take Alma and her chil­dren into their home. An ac­ci­dent has made room. Al­fred’s brother Archie, newly en­listed in the Great War, has been run over while alight­ing from a tram. He will never cross the seas into com­bat. His brother will never en­list.

Alma is also sup­ported by Pas­tor Goble, who preaches, and tries to prac­tise, the ‘‘per­sonal so­cial­ism’’ of Christ. At the same time, Alma is de­rided by a vi­cious neigh­bour over the fence. The novel is full of bit­ter as well as re­silient women. Soon enough though, ‘‘there was some­thing about the set of Al­fred’s mouth that Alma liked’’. Other things too, so that she falls preg­nant with the child, Molly, who will be­come her third.

Molly is born into a city where ‘‘evic­tions were fre­quent’’ and ‘‘the streets were full of re­turned sol­diers’’, var­i­ously dis­abled and re­sent­ful. Mel­bourne is be­set by the Great Strike of 1917, dur­ing which Al­fred is laid off and rages against scabs. The war ends, to be fol­lowed by the in­fluenza epi­demic and the Footscray flood. The Horses By Wil­liam Lane Tran­sit Lounge, 288pp, $29.95 The Moth­ers By Rod Jones Text Pub­lish­ing, 334pp, $29.99 Jones is cap­tive to his re­search and its chronol­ogy, seem­ingly com­pelled to waste few de­tails. Con­sider his long de­scrip­tion of the meat in a butcher’s win­dow that is be­yond Alma’s means.

Molly bet­ters her­self, mar­ry­ing the dry stick Percy, but is child­less un­til they adopt a boy from a Sal­va­tion Army home in 1952. The child’s mother, Anna, is forced to re­lin­quish him for adop­tion af­ter en­dur­ing such cruel per­ora­tions from the ma­tron as ‘‘God hates preg­nant girls’’; ‘‘the devil knows very well how to twist a man’s soul by tempt­ing him with a comely girl’’.

We skip to an­other un­mar­ried preg­nant woman. In Fitzroy in 1975 Cathy is preg­nant to that adop­tive child, David, a churl­ish ide­o­logue and would-be writer. Jones keeps the pe­riod de­tail go­ing, now of the Whit­lam dis­missal that left ‘‘a na­tion di­vided’’, but the nar­ra­tive drive has slack­ened by the time he reaches 1990, when there is an un­easy meet­ing of Molly, Anna and David.

Reach­ing that con­clu­sion, Jones has com­pleted what al­most seems like a pen­i­ten­tial ex­er­cise, how­ever wor­thy. His novel is in a very dif­fer­ent spirit from the near reck­less par­ody of Wil­liam Lane’s The Horses. Lane’s first novel, Over the Wa­ter, was pub­lished last year, and he is writ­ing as if there is not time to waste.

Af­ter Jones’s his­tor­i­cal pageant, Lane gives us one term of may­hem and dis­in­te­gra­tion in a Syd­ney board­ing school that boasts 15 sports­grounds, an Olympic-sized swim­ming pool, sta­bles of pam­pered and vi­cious horses (the school war cry is ‘‘Whinny-whinny, neigh-neigh!’’), a head­mas­ter called Capon, ‘‘masters [who] fol­lowed in a tweed pack’’ and boys clad in a uni­form of me­dieval ar­mour, who ‘‘leapt up and clapped their breast­plates’’ at as­sem­blies.

This is school fic­tion, Bunter, but not as Aus­tralians have known it. In our lit­er­a­ture, nov­els

The Horses;

The Moth­ers set in schools have not been nu­mer­ous, although some have been dis­tin­guished: Henry Han­del Richard­son’s The Get­ting of Wis­dom (1910), Ken­neth Mackenzie’s The Young De­sire It (1937) and more re­cently An­son Cameron’s Lies I Told About a Girl (2006) among them.

Fic­tion and drama about the tra­vails of a Chris­tian Broth­ers ed­u­ca­tion or mem­oirs of a Catholic girl­hood be­long to a sec­tar­ian age that hap­pily be­gan to fade away in the 1960s. School is oddly pe­riph­eral to Aus­tralian nov­els of grow­ing up, as though the es­sen­tial for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences are per­sonal and fa­mil­ial, rather than in­sti­tu­tional.

That makes Lane’s im­mer­sion of his read­ers in the build­ings, his­tory, tra­di­tions and cus­toms of the school un­usual and — be­cause of the con­vic­tion with which he treats be­hav­iour that is ac­cepted as nat­u­ral for all that it ap­pears to out­siders to be cruel and ab­surd — com­pelling. Thus ‘‘stiff lit­tle boys en­cased in ar­mour’’, a dio­rama of The Charge of the Light Brigade and ‘‘hunt day’’, when ‘‘dark clots of boys stood about the skinned and butchered game’’ are taken for granted by those ha­bit­u­ated to life

The in­mates of a school’s sta­bles turn sav­age in Wil­liam Lane’s union­ists dur­ing the Great Strike of 1917, right, which fea­tures in Rod Jones’s

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