From fractured families to cli-fi
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.