Som­bre twists in life’s jour­ney Jay Daniel Thompson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jay Daniel Thompson teaches at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne and re­searches in the area of Aus­tralian literature.

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

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