From frac­tured fam­i­lies to cli-fi

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The great singer has no role to play in Leav­ing Elvis (UWAP, 156pp, $24.99), the ex­cel­lent de­but col­lec­tion from West Aus­tralian writer Michelle Michau-Craw­ford. The ti­tle story won the pres­ti­gious Aus­tralian Book Re­view El­iz­a­beth Jol­ley Short Story Prize in 2013 and this book­length se­ries of in­ter­linked sto­ries ful­fils that prom­ise.

Span­ning 1948 to 2013, th­ese sto­ries jan­gle in in­ter­est­ing ways. There are some the­matic and struc­tural re­sem­blances to Louis Ar­mand’s re­cent Aba­cus. Both are frag­mented in­ter­gen­er­a­tional tales or­gan­ised around fam­i­lies the reader first en­coun­ters in an Aus­tralian coun­try town. Craw­ford sets her story in an un­named Western Aus­tralia; Ar­mand in NSW. Where Ar­mand’s sto­ries tend to ex­tend ge­o­graph­i­cally and into more ab­stracted realms, Craw­ford keeps hers on a tighter leash and ex­tracts emo­tional res­o­nance from the lines of cau­sa­tion and emo­tional in­her­i­tances be­tween the gen­er­a­tions.

The town re­mains a con­stant, a base even as suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions es­cape it to Syd­ney or even Ire­land. This move­ment away is in­evitably a fail­ure and, while grav­ity is gen­er­ated from th­ese tragedies, at times the reader is left yearn­ing for less re­duc­tive des­tinies. From the plot arcs alone the mes­sage is pal­pa­ble: leave and you will be ru­ined — for Len in the open­ing story by his ex­pe­ri­ences in the war; and for his daugh­ter, Olive, and then her daugh­ter, Louise, by the risks they must take as vul­ner­a­ble young women to make their es­cape and the dam­ag­ing tra­jec­to­ries that re­sult.

Poor or un­lucky choices in men seem to be the pri­mary gen­e­sis of the prob­lems for the women in th­ese sto­ries. Yet Craw­ford is not di­dac­tic but alert to the play of cul­tur­ally in­scribed roles with his­tor­i­cal events. The writ­ing is pithy but per­cep­tive, and the sce­nar­ios range be­tween bleak and wry. The late-in-life rein­ven­tion of Eve­lyn, Len’s wife, for in­stance, from con­ser­va­tive farmer’s widow to dopesmok­ing stir­rer as the town be­comes pop­u­lar with tree-changers, is a clever ex­am­ple of the lat­ter. On one hand it’s a cel­e­bra­tion of the re­lease from so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions, yet it’s also ul­ti­mately an ex­pres­sion of how vul­ner­a­bil­ity and lone­li­ness can make peo­ple poor judges of char­ac­ter, a per­sis­tent theme.

The Pa­per House (Pi­cador, 304pp, $32.99) is the de­but novel for Mel­bourne-based writer, blog­ger and dig­i­tal strate­gist Anna Spargo-Ryan. Like Leav­ing Elvis, it is cen­tred on the ex­pe­ri­ences of one fam­ily, specif­i­cally the en­coun­ters of a mother and daugh­ter with men­tal ill­ness and the fall­out from it.

The open­ing is el­e­gant and eco­nom­i­cal. Young mar­ried cou­ple, Heather and Dave, spend two mag­i­cal years in the out­back, and re­turn to Mel­bourne “red against its grey­ness, salt in their veins”. De­cry­ing the bland­ness of sub­ur­ban life, they de­cide to make an ad­ven­ture for them­selves by hav­ing a baby. Heather gets preg­nant and they re­alise there is no space for a baby in their flat. They buy a quirky house on the western side of the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula; then, as they wait for it to set­tle, tragedy strikes. The baby dies in Heather’s womb.

They are stuck with the house and while Dave goes to work at a lo­cal school, Heather slides into depths of grief that trig­ger psy­chosis. She be­comes an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor. Con­fined to her house and the vicin­ity of the vil­lage, what is real and what is imag­ined be­gin to blur. The seachange quirk­i­ness of new com­pan­ions such as the lo­cal provi­dore and Sylvia, the wid­owed next-door neigh­bour, is cor­rupted by the in­ven­tion of men at the bot­tom of her gar­den. Un­sure what to do, Dave re­treats to the study and his les­son plans, try­ing to wait out the grief and mad­ness.

This story al­ter­nates with that of Heather’s mother, who seems to have suf­fered from bipo­lar dis­or­der. Heather’s telling of her mother’s story doesn’t so much seem to be an ex­plo­ration of ge­netic in­her­i­tance but more an at­tempt to res­cue from the past a wo­man who has be­come de­fined by her ill­ness. And per­haps this at­tempt is partly how Heather be­gins to find a way to strug­gle out of her own predica­ment. It’s a strange trick of the novel that the un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor of the present nar­ra­tive also hap­pens to serve as our ac­cess to the story of her past. At times it comes across as a tech­ni­cal prob­lem that tests the novel’s plau­si­bil­ity.

Spargo-Ryan’s lush prose oc­ca­sion­ally feels like an in­ad­e­quate con­tainer for the emo­tional en­ergy it’s un­leash­ing, yet this com­bi­na­tion of fragility and wild­ness is also con­so­nant with the ex­pe­ri­ence of a break­down. It may be per­ceived as a weak­ness in the con­cep­tion of the book, but tech­nique is not ev­ery­thing and from another per­spec­tive it’s the im­pres­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a jour­ney into emo­tional states that can be rid­den through but never con­trolled.

In the stakes of dystopian fic­tion, cli­mate change is over­tak­ing nu­clear win­ters and pan­demics as the hottest cat­a­lyst for the re­duc­tion of the hu­man con­di­tion to some­thing ap­proach­ing Thomas Hobbes’s idea of the state of na­ture: nasty, brutish and short. It’s not a com­pletely new idea. JG Bal­lard pre­saged the vogue as early as 1964 when he pub­lished The Burn­ing World, a length­ier ver­sion of which ap­peared the fol­low­ing year re­named The Drought. But as the fear and sense of ur­gency about the de­gen­er­a­tion of our cli­matic con­di­tions grows, a sub­genre has been formed that imag­ines into the po­ten­tial con­se­quences of cli­mate change. Jane Ab­bott’s de­but novel, Wa­ter­shed (Vin­tage, 440pp, $32.99) is one novel be­long­ing to this sub­genre, which has be­come known as cli-fi.

For the peo­ple in this novel, the world is shaped by the sin­gle hard fact that rain has stopped fall­ing on the Earth. While it con­tin­ues to fall over the ocean, life on land has been over­taken by the desert, cold nights, fiercely hot days and parched sparsely vege­tated land. The first nar­ra­tive of the novel fol­lows Sarah and Daniel, a univer­sity-ed­u­cated cou­ple forced by en­croach­ing scarcity to be­come scav­engers in their home town. As the cru­el­ties of mob rule as­sert them­selves and food and wa­ter get more dif­fi­cult to find, they set out on a trek with their new­born daugh­ter Anna to find some­where to live out their lives in rel­a­tive peace.

Af­ter a treach­er­ous jour­ney, they ar­rive at a nascent com­mu­nity called the Ci­tadel. It’s de­fended against invasion and has ac­cess to some wa­ter, which has be­comes the set­tle­ment’s cur­rency. It’s a de­pleted world that shows how pow­er­fully the sub­trac­tion of ma­te­rial com­fort erases eth­i­cal be­hav­iour. The world-build­ing here is ex­cel­lent. Ab­bott is strong on the an­thro­po­log­i­cal de­tails. She also shows how the good in­ten­tions of a com­mu­nity are per­verted not just by scarcity but by emer­gent pat­terns of power and the Ni­et­zschean urge to pre­serve them at all costs.

The sec­ond part of the story fol­lows Sarah and Daniel’s grand­son Jem, who is res­cued from the scaf­fold to be­come a Watcher, a kind of of­fi­cial as­sas­sin un­der the lead­er­ship of the sadis­tic Gar­rick. The Ci­tadel is in a state of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and Jem be­comes an un­wit­ting player in a power strug­gle. This story is com­pelling un­til the con­clu­sion, where Ab­bott loses her bear­ings some­what. She leaves the end­ing hang­ing, sug­gest­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a se­quel. Yet there is some­thing in the re­ver­sal of loy­al­ties that trou­bles the plau­si­bil­ity of the char­ac­ters and di­vorces the plot from the eth­i­cal mo­men­tum that has driven it. On the whole, how­ever, Wa­ter­shed, while no Bal­lard, is an ac­com­plished and highly read­able de­but.

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