Evoca­tive tales of dis­tant times and places

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Two first-time nov­el­ists have brought their ex­pe­ri­ence and fas­ci­na­tion to works set far from home. Tony Grey’s The Tor­toise in Asia takes place in the last cen­tury BC along the Silk Road, a trade route that ran for thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from Rome to Chang’an in China (the Han cap­i­tal near mod­ern Xian). East and west were linked across two con­ti­nents. Grey, who has been a stage ac­tor, min­ing en­tre­pre­neur and arts pa­tron, has of­ten re­turned to this his­to­rys­teeped land­scape. He was par­tic­u­larly drawn to one of the more cu­ri­ous leg­ends of the road, which sug­gested that a co­hort of Ro­man le­gion- naires, cap­tured af­ter the dis­as­trous de­feat by the Parthi­ans at Car­rhae in 53BC, be­came mer­ce­nar­ies, first for the Xi­ung Nu (or Huns) and then for the Han. Even­tu­ally they set­tled in Gansu prov­ince in western China. Im­prob­a­bly large traces of Cau­casian DNA are still found in the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion, while ev­ery year at the town of Liqian there is a “much talked about Ro­man pa­rade”. How this might have come about is the essence of Grey’s story.

De­bra Jop­son, who won a Walk­ley Award for in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism in 2014, “spent part of her child­hood in Beirut and con­tin­ued to visit her fam­ily there dur­ing the first rounds of the 1970s Le­banon civil war”. She has drawn on those mem­o­ries for Oliver of the Le­vant. The pro­tag­o­nist is a Huck Finn fig­ure whose ado­les­cent games slide into bloody adult busi­ness. We first meet him at Bondi in 1969, when he has just turned 15. He has lost his mother to drug ad­dic­tion: “the nar­row-gut­ted man, up the Cross … took her away from us”. To­gether with his younger brother, Jess, and their glam­orous step­mother, Ba­bette, who “lived on cig­a­rettes, ap­ples, gin and nose-spray”, he is trans­lated to Beirut. This is the lat­est post­ing for the boy’s air­line pi­lot father, Lach­lan Lawrence. By 1971, Is­raeli jets buzz the city daily, refugee camps swell with Pales­tini­ans and the Chris­tian Pha­langist mili­tias vie for au­thor­ity with the army.

That nei­ther of th­ese in­tro­duc­tions to two new Aus­tralian nov­els is any longer likely to cause sur­prise is an in­di­ca­tion of the un­apolo­getic cos­mopoli­tanism in their choice of sub­jects of a num­ber of our au­thors. Grey’s and Jop­son’s pub­lish­ers tell part of this story. The Tor­toise in Asia is from the small in­de­pen­dent Bri­tish pub­lisher John Libbey, Oliver of the Le­vant from the multi­na­tional Vin­tage. Each novel dis­places us to for­eign parts and past times.

Much Aus­tralian fic­tion has dealt with up­root­ing: of con­victs and set­tlers from Bri­tain and Ire­land, and con­se­quently that of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple from their an­ces­tral lands. Grey and Jop­son deal acutely with de­ra­ci­na­tion of a dif­fer­ent kind. The youth­ful Oliver has no say in his re­moval to Beirut, from which he is later ban­ished in dis­grace (for the se­ri­ous prank of bomb-mak­ing), only to suc­ceed in his wish to re­turn as a war pho­tog­ra­pher. The le­gion­naire Mar­cus and his com­pan­ions in Grey’s novel en­dure an ex­ile from which there can be no home­com­ing.

The Tor­toise in Asia opens omi­nously as “a lone ea­gle stares at the an­cient road of manyc­i­tied Syria”. Four Ro­man le­gions, “the long ser­pen­tine line of might”, are ready to cross the Euphrates to in­vade Parthia. They are led by Cras­sus, the rich­est and most avari­cious man in Rome, for whom the Parthi­ans have re­served a condign pun­ish­ment. Con­queror of Spar­ta­cus’s slave re­volt, he is no sol­dier. Grey cuts to the court of Orodes II, “di­vine ruler of Parthia”, who is sur­rounded by orac­u­lar Zoroas­trian Magi. Orodes dis­patches his best gen­eral, Surena, to deal with the Ro­mans, in the hope that this po­ten­tial usurper might not re­turn.

His­tor­i­cal re­search has been done with care but no solem­nity. Grey is also adept at bat­tle de-

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