Fraught family dynamics for a returning son
The heath-like wedding bush, so named for its starry white flowers, adds a misleadingly benign slant to the title of David Francis’s third novel, Wedding Bush Road. His previous was Stray Dog Winter in 2008, a brilliant political and sexual thriller set in Cold War Moscow in the 1980s.
Though each novel is animated in large part by the twisted dynamics of families, this new one takes us far from Russia: to Australia and, to a significant and poignant extent, into the author’s own past on a farm at Tooradin, at the head of Victoria’s Westernport Bay.
His protagonist, Daniel Rawson, is — like his creator — now a lawyer based in Los Angeles. Daniel has been summoned home before Christmas because his formidable mother Ruth has proclaimed she is nearing her end.
After seven years away, he finds the loved dishevelment he had left — father kicked out because of an affair but still labouring on a property that is rundown and overrun by chancers — has only intensified.
With promises of being home by New Year’s that are bound to be impossible to keep, Daniel has left behind his Venezuelan girlfriend (who “flew across the country to study reflexology”). Francis sets himself the difficult task of keeping her in the story through her countervailing claim on Daniel, and manages this adroitly right down to the novel’s open ending.
Meanwhile, after “the longest flight there is”, Daniel is reunited with his mother. She treats him nonchalantly, “as if I’m a ghost that often appears”.
He finds that his errant father, Earley, has installed one of his younger girlfriends, Sharen Poole, in a cottage on the property, even though it no longer belongs to him.
She has just burned a car and the Rawson family furniture (“what’s left of England blackened and strewn”) in the back yard and admits that “sometimes I get bipolar, the merry-goround in my head”. Her feral son, Reggie Don, is given to keeping an eye on the world from above: windmills, trees, the attic. His brutal father, Walker Dumbalk, ejected from a land that he thinks belongs to him, has returned.
This is the place to which Daniel comes home, to “a house where men have found it hard and women have struggled on their own”. Not that his mother, however waiflike she now appears, would own to struggling. A cryptologist in Britain in the 1950s, equestrian, tennis player, in appearance “she could be a peasant from anywhere, but she’s the daughter of a postmaster general”.
When Daniel, now 35, asks why she had a child at 46 (and by implication how she succumbed to Earley’s charms), she explains that she wanted to have “someone worth talking to”. And someone to listen to her earthy takes on the world: mentioning the death of a neighbour’s grey thoroughbred from the bite of a tiger snake, Ruth tersely concludes: “Dead as a stove in the grass.”
Now Daniel has to reckon not only with his mother’s supposedly impending death but with the arrangements she is making — with a determined disregard for legality — for the disposition of the property that she had willed to her only son.
As Daniel learns from intermittent and unsatisfactory phone calls, Isabel — in company with a flaky lesbian friend — is driving his Jeep along the coast of California in the rain in the hope of spiritual enlightenment. We hear her voice as well in one of the interpolations from characters besides Daniel with which Francis punctuates his narrative. Reggie Don, Earley and Dumbalk also have intense words to say for themselves.
On the Tooraveen Estate, Walker is keen to steal stock and to coerce his son into joining him. The house seems under siege, permeable to anyone who wants to trespass or take possession.
Things are falling apart and Ruth offers this reproach to her son: “You want us to be here … But you don’t want to be.”
He considers what abandoning Tooraveen again may mean: