The past makes its presence felt … at home
A story by Josephine Rowe published some years ago begins: “When I write of a house now, it is only ever the one house: its smell of smoke and old wood, foxed books, dried blue gum ripped lazily from the overgrown yard.” The story ends: “It’s only ever the one house, but it’s shifting, unmappable, and I can never get far enough away to see the whole of it.”
If you had the idea that you might read this as a key to unlocking the secrets of Rowe’s lumi- nous, allusive prose, you would often find the locks weren’t budging. But this 171-word story is hard to keep out of mind when reading A Loving, Faithful Animal, Rowe’s first novel, following four books of poetry and prose. Both are about the power of the past to fill more than its share of the tiny room we call the present. The further in time we move from the trauma of history, the better we see that the past casts a long shadow. And in this novel, about the Vietnam War’s effects on the Australian family, the shadows don’t suffuse the home; they constitute it.
We first tour this specific home through the eyes of Ru, a girl on the verge of adolescence. Her town, off the Hume Highway, is in deep bushfire country, but for Ru it’s a pre-teen topography of cicada husks and social anxiety. The family dog has recently been murdered by one of those mysterious creatures that occasionally emerge from the Australian psyche to prowl the surrounding bushland. In this case, it appears to be a panther very like the one Ru’s father, Jack, has tattooed on his bicep.
Ru, and less so, Lani, her rebellious older sister, fail to understand why their mother Evelyn continues to chase Jack when he disappears into this rooming house or that seedy southside suburb: “It’s so embarrassing,” complains Lani, “he’s just going to belt her around again.”
Evelyn appears to spend her life acquiring slow, ongoing damage in the service of the very person who wounds her. But in a novel built on the particular, and the interior, Evelyn encapsulates both the keenest moral problems and the most persuasive psychological study. We all know we are capable of receiving harm, for many reasons. But when you are not currently in that state it is difficult to imagine how you’d get there, much less the reason you’d stay.
Rowe’s stealth-topic is “the inheritance of lived experience”: genetic memory, and trauma’s power to cross generations. Yet Evelyn’s story asks the reader to view love itself as unusually multifaceted, and similarly pernicious. Can what she does “be called patience, or plain idiocy, or did love leave room enough for both?” The correct answer feels both urgent and elusive, and the question remains troubling long after the book is closed.
Evelyn also packs a wicked sense of humour; she thinks the Kakadu Gorge is funny because