Skeins of the past shroud migratory journeys
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.