Fraught fam­ily dy­nam­ics for a re­turn­ing son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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:

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