Skeins of the past shroud mi­gra­tory jour­neys

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Se­cret Son By Jenny Ack­land Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $29.99 The Wait­ing Room By Leah Kamin­sky Vintage, 286pp, $32.99

One de­ter­min­ing fac­tor in com­mon in these two fine first nov­els is Mel­bourne. Once a place of refuge for the par­ents of the main char­ac­ters in each, later it is some­where their chil­dren must es­cape, to al­low fresh kinds of reck­on­ing far away.

In Jenny Ack­land’s The Se­cret Son, an un­fo­cused young man, Cem Kel­oglu, is the Aus­tralian-born son of par­ents from an Ana­to­lian vil­lage. Along with his grand­fa­ther they em­i­grated to Aus­tralia. Now, against their wishes, he trav­els back to Tur­key to see what obli­ga­tions or need for atone­ment awaits him.

In Leah Kamin­sky’s The Wait­ing Room, Dr Dina Ro­nen has been set­tled in Is­rael for 10 years when the novel opens in Haifa in 2001. The Mel­bourne child of Holo­caust sur­vivors — hence a ‘‘Ga­lut­nik: a Di­as­pora Jew … an eter­nal vic­tim as op­posed to the strong sabra Jew born in Is­rael’’ — she is dis­sat­is­fied with her do­mes­tic life and re­lent­lessly hounded by the imag­ined voice of her dead mother. In the long, gen­tle and af­fect­ing first sec­tion of The Se­cret Son, we learn of how another young man — gen­er­a­tions be­fore Cem — trav­elled to Tur­key. He was James Kelly from Beech­worth, a tan­ner and bee­keeper who moved to the city to work in the prin­tery of The Argus news­pa­per and then for Ed­ward Cole of the famed Book Ar­cade in Mel­bourne.

Spurned by Cole’s free-spir­ited avi­a­trix daugh­ter, Linda (‘‘a hus­band would stop me fly­ing’’), James en­lists in the First Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force, although he vows ‘‘I won’t kill any man’’. While serv­ing at Gal­lipoli, and be­cause of his abil­ity to dis­cern the pat­tern of gun­fire, he helps plan the se­cret evac­u­a­tion of the penin­sula. But he is left be­hind. As if in a dream, he leaves the site of bat­tle with a young Turk, Fer­hat. This re­calls the cru­cial episode in Stephen Dais­ley’s 2010 novel Traitor. While Dais­ley’s char­ac­ters were ap­pre­hended, James set­tles in Fer­hat’s vil­lage. Thus it is — in the dar­ing premise that Ack­land asks us to ac­cept — that Ned Kelly’s un­sus­pected, ‘‘se­cret’’ son lives out his life in Tur­key.

Ack­land rises au­da­ciously to the chal­lenge of imag­in­ing the life that might have been for James. Bibu­lous Aus­tralian his­to­rian Harry For­est, who trav­els to Ana­to­lia with Cem, is con­vinced of the truth of the story. What may be Ned’s skull will end up there by cir­cuitous means. Hav­ing led us down this path, Ack­land shows the ex­tent to which the past does not mat­ter. The es­sen­tial story is of James’s trans­for­ma­tion: the ac­com­mo­da­tions he makes in this strange phys­i­cal and lin­guis­tic ter­ri­tory to which he has come.

Cem’s grand­fa­ther tells him of how ‘‘ we had an Aus­tralian in the vil­lage, a long time ago’’. This is a place that has tried hard to stay re­mote from his­tor­i­cal up­heavals. Its in­hab­i­tants are ‘‘sheep men, car­pet weavers, cof­fee drinkers’’. How­ever, their pat­tern of re­sent­ful co-ex­is­tence will be dis­rupted again when Cem, per­haps the grand­son of the gnomic old woman Berna, vis­its. He is ex­pected. Grand­fa­ther Ah­met ‘‘promised his first grand­son and he has kept his prom­ise’’. What fol­lows is rich in com­pli­ca­tions and wor­thy of Ack­land’s var­ied nar­ra­tive gifts. She has a keen sense of char­ac­ters’ ca­pac­ity for dis­tract­ing reverie and she is also adept at eli­sion: re­leas­ing in­for­ma­tion with un­ex­pected and telling ef­fects.

The Se­cret Son (also the ti­tle of a pseudony­mous fic­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the Ned and James Kelly busi­ness) sprawls across a cen­tury of in­ter­twined Turk­ish and Aus­tralian history. By con­trast, much of Kamin­sky’s The Wait­ing Room, for all its strik­ing ret­ro­spects, is com­pressed into a few ter­ri­ble hours in a sin­gle day.

The voice of Dina’s mother goads her: ‘‘Why are you so con­vinced you are yoked to dis­as­ter to­day?’’ Dina came to Is­rael on a whim, af­ter ‘‘a skiing tryst in Aus­tria’’. She found Ei­tan, vet­eran of the Le­banon war and ‘‘one of the ‘chil­dren of the dream’: the hope of a new so­ci­ety’’. She also en­coun­tered a place that ‘‘looked noth­ing like the clean, man­i­cured sub­urbs of Mel­bourne — too dirty, too cramped, too Le­van­tine’’. All the boys with whom she had sex at home were ‘‘like her, un­born at Auschwitz sta­tion, but for­ever stand­ing on that plat­form’’. Now she is a doc­tor with a son whom she al­ready imag­ines as a Golani in­fantry­man, a stalled mar­riage and another child due.

Nev­er­the­less Dina im­merses her­self in the med­i­cal clinic at French Carmel, one of the old­est neigh­bour­hoods in Haifa. There she is bossed by of­fice man­ager Yael, daily pestered for med­i­cal cer­tifi­cates by the Rus­sian Yevgeny, treats the un­de­serv­ing, an acrid, cat-drown­ing neigh­bour, Mrs Susskind, and the wor­thy Sou­sanne who hopes that her un­born child will be the son who will save her mar­riage, but who in­stead has a fa­tal tu­mour of which Dina will have to tell her.

This is one of the deftly sketched set­tings in a novel that is com­pact, fast-paced, yet takes time for in­ter­ludes. In one of them Dina is locked, for pro­tec­tion, in the shop of a shoe­maker who learned his trade at Auschwitz, while a ro­bot det­o­nates a sus­pi­cious pack­age out­side. Dina’s mother had been a cook at Bergen-Belsen while her fa­ther (news of whose lost pre-war fam­ily Dina even­tu­ally dis­cov­ers) was a tai­lor in the camps. As Dina’s mother mor­dantly re­marks: ‘‘Hitler was our match­maker’’.

This is one of Dina’s bur­dens: a re­lent­less call to ad­dress a shock­ing past, both in the par­tic­u­lars of her fam­ily life and in wider Jewish history. In the present she must face the de­ci­sion that she made to give up her Aus­tralian pass­port, to set­tle for an Is­raeli pro­fes­sional and per­sonal life, re­lin­quish­ing ‘‘fan­ta­sises of bars, af­fairs and black dresses’’. Ack­land’s Cem is also

be­set by the con­se­quences of past ac­tions, worse for him be­cause they were his grand­fa­ther’s. He is nev­er­the­less called to ac­count for the ac­ci­dent that cost Berna’s brother Mehmet his hand and the death of Ayse, who drowned her­self in a vil­lage well.

That the skeins of Cem’s past also in­clude the Kelly con­nec­tion, trans­formed ut­terly from the sto­ries re­ceived as part of an Aus­tralian child­hood, is another dis­ori­en­ta­tion that he sur­vives. He has a fur­ther trial that Ack­land springs on us near the end of a novel, to the telling of which she brings un­flag­ging in­ven­tive­ness and verve.

Ack­land and Kamin­sky have given us first nov­els that re­shape fa­mil­iar his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial with orig­i­nal­ity and dash; sus­tain their strange tales with as­sur­ance; move con­fi­dently be­tween coun­tries and eras, in­ti­mate and na­tional his­to­ries; of­fer two more in­di­ca­tions of the present and fu­ture health of Aus­tralian fic­tion.

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