Sombre twists in life’s journey Jay Daniel Thompson
The Promise Seed By Cass Moriarty UQP, 291pp, $29.95 Fever of Animals By Miles Allinson Scribe, 255pp, $29.99
Cass Moriarty’s The Promise Seed and Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals signal the arrival of two promising Australian authors. Both are debut novels, and both provide compelling narratives about loss, grief and the complexities of memory.
The Promise Seed was shortlisted in the emerging author category at last year’s Queensland Literary Awards. The novel, set in a Queensland suburb, focuses on the friendship between characters who are referred to as ‘‘old man’’ and ‘‘the boy’’.
The old man is a loner haunted by memories of the family members he has lost in different circumstances and at different times. The boy is the old man’s neighbour, a loner himself who lives with his mother and her dubious boyfriends, including a sinister sleaze with the appropriate nickname Snake.
The old man and the boy bond over the former’s chickens and develop a close friendship. The novel’s title refers to the old man’s perception of his prepubescent pal. The boy is a ‘‘seed sprouting a hopeful bloom, shooting upwards from the cracks of his short and troubled existence’’. He is at a crossroads in his young life and will one day move beyond the grimness of his present existence — or at least the old man hopes he will. Clearly, the boy embodies the kind of potential that the old man is now unable to fulfil.
Moriarty does a commendable job of evoking the sad, squalid milieu in which her characters reside. Witness the following passage, in which the boy visits his elderly neighbour:
The door was unlocked. The kitchen was in an even worse state than it had been five days earlier. A foul odour emanated from the overflowing rubbish bin; plates crawling with flies sat stacked at the sink and on the table. The bottles had multiplied.
This novel covers some confronting issues without sensationalism. The author never moralises about her characters’ lives. There is a sudden and shocking burst of violence in the latter pages. Even then, Moriarty keeps the text from slipping into the realm of melodrama. The bleakness that permeates The Promise Seed is broken by spots of humour, such as the old man regularly admonishing the boy for his profanity.
The most impressive aspect of Moriarty’s novel is the relationship between the protagonists, which is expertly constructed and believable. The old man asks rhetorically: ‘‘What do I know about kids? Bugger all!’’ That proves to be a moot point, as the two of them provide each other with emotional support. The reader is left to decide whether the old man’s glorified perception of the boy as a ‘‘promise seed’’ is helpful or harmful to either of them.
The old man’s memories of his single, fleeting encounter with his daughter are haunting. She is remembered as ‘‘Girl in the mirror’’, a voiceless figure in a long-ago concert venue. Pleasingly, the daughter is not demonised for refusing to speak to her father. Equally, the old man’s relationship with the boy does not read as simply an attempt to live out that lost fatherchild relationship. A virtue of both novels under review is their refusal to resort to cheap psychologising. Similarly melancholy territory is crossed in
Fever of Animals, which won last year’s unpublished manuscript prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
The protagonist is a 20-something man named Miles. In the opening pages, he is arriving home in Australia from London after receiving news his father is dying. Miles is greeted by ‘‘Melbourne’s ... ugly panorama’’ and ‘‘relentlessly flat’’ streets filled with ‘‘drab office complexes and car parks’’ (one wonders what Tourism Victoria might make of this).
The novel shifts between Australia and Europe, the present and past. Miles studies art at university, then finds one day that he is ‘‘no longer an artist’’. He recalls his relationship with Alice, from their halcyon early days to their break-up in Florence. Miles becomes fascinated with Emil Bafdescu, an obscure Romanian surrealist painter who disappeared about 1967. The artist’s fate becomes a source of fascination for the protagonist, who tries to find answers.
The plot is reminiscent of Mark Henshaw’s 1988 debut novel Out of the Line of Fire, and comparisons could also be made with Christos Tsiolkas’s 2005 novel Dead Europe. Where The
Promise Seed strives for realism, Allinson’s novel has a dreamlike quality. There are references to dreams and dreaming (though, mercifully, no full-blown dream sequences). Random memories float to the surface at unexpected moments. The narrator’s perspective seems hazy, clouded as it is by grief, longing and a gnawing personal disappointment.
Allinson’s prose is chatty in the best possible way. The novel opens with the line: ‘‘Or maybe, after all, it should begin on the plane ...’’ One gets the impression of stumbling into a conversation — a very intense conversation — midway through. This is a nice way of grabbing readers’ attention. The author demonstrates a devastating knack for conveying the nuances of bereavement. This is most evident in the moment where Miles visits his father in hospital just after he has died:
It was as if I had been unconsciously anticipating this moment; everything familiar about my father was somehow being stripped away, even as I watched, by an invisible current. His mouth had fallen open, and couldn’t be closed now, and his lower teeth seemed odd and small. They reminded me of the teeth of a fish.
The sense of uncanny is palpable. In death, Miles’s father has become a husk, a smaller and near-unidentifiable version of his former self. Miles’s mother mentions her late husband’s ‘‘beautiful hands ... his beautiful body’’. These remarks force the protagonist to awkwardly acknowledge his parents’ ‘‘sexual attraction’’. Both these novels have shortcomings. In
Fever of Animals, the lengthy descriptions of surrealism and the fictional Bafdescu’s life read as though they have strayed in from somewhere else (a scholarly essay, perhaps?) These descriptions are well-written, yes, but their polemical tone sits uneasily with the rest of the novel.
In The Promise Seed, the freshness of Moriarty’s prose is disrupted by cliches. For example: ‘‘Maybelline Frost was a looker, no doubt about it. Tall for a girl, about five foot nine, with an hourglass figure she didn’t bother to hide.’’ On another note, while much attention is given to the alcoholism of the boy’s mother, little attention is given to the old man’s battle with booze. He confesses to a fondness for the bottle and has a few drunken episodes, one of which is described in bilious detail.
Then, voila, the drink magically disappears from his life. If only addiction management was so easy.
Those comments aside, The Promise Seed and Fever of Animals are to be highly recommended. Neither book makes for light reading, but each takes readers on erudite and intriguing journeys into some of the darker areas of human existence.
Cass Moriarty’s debut novel covers confronting issues without sensationalism