Of families and floods
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 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