Eva Hornung’s first novel in nine years ventures into a bestial world where tragedy and religion meet, writes Stephen Romei
‘Hornung comes, does it not, to chasten us, to burn our souls and lay bare our sins … We squint in the white light of Hornung, dazed … Blaze when Hornung blazes upon you!” If that sounds like a blazing blurb for Eva Hornung’s new novel, The Last Garden, well, it could be. It’s a mesmerising book by the talented, reclusive Australian author who used to write under her married name, Eva Sallis. But it’s in fact a description of the month by the religious exiles in the book, who follow an early Germanic calendar known as Hornung, the month of gathering. We know it as February.
“Yes, I did enjoy writing that bit!’’ Hornung says about the month with which she shares a name. She laughs, as she does often in our telephone interview. She’s at home, in the Adelaide Hills, where she runs a farm full of horses.
Horses are important in the new novel, as the cover suggests, but we will come to that later. This is Hornung’s first novel since the Moscow-set Dog Boy, about a six-year-old kid who is raised by feral dogs. It won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2009.
Hornung, then Sallis, won The Australian/ Vogel’s Literary Award for her debut novel, Hiam, in 1997. She followed that with regularly delivered works of fiction, and each was acclaimed by critics: The City of Sealions (2002), Mahjar (2003), Fire Fire (2005), praised as a “Cloudstreet of the Australian bush”, The Marsh Birds (2006) and Dog Boy.
With that track record, nine years is a long time between books. Hornung’s explanation is one with which every writer will sympathise: writer’s block. Her life was a bit difficult at the time. Her then eight-year-old son, Rafael, was suffering acute anxiety. She was no longer with her husband. It was concern for her son that made her break the writer’s block.
“I thought I would force myself to write a book for my son. I sat down literally to force myself to write, and I wrote the first paragraph of The Last Garden.”
Even that opening paragraph made her realise the book would not be suitable for an eight-year-old. Rafael, now 16, hasn’t read it yet but he has his mother’s approval to do so.
“I ended up following that first paragraph to wherever it led, and it led to all sorts of strange things,” Hornung says. “So it’s kind of hard to answer why I wrote the book or what I’m trying to achieve. But I did manage to express things that mattered to me.”
The novel opens, in the month of Nebelung, with a devastating event that would be right at home in good crime fiction: On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement and as the capital letter at home, killed himself.
Before turning the gun on himself he entered his “beautiful house” as if “blown by a harsh wind” and shot his wife Ada “through the heart as she stood by the sideboard”. “She crumpled into silence, a hush that he recognised as unique among hushes: the very end of everything.”
So after one page we have a tragic murdersuicide that demands explanation. One of the brilliant aspects of the novel is that every step taken towards a possible answer only raises more questions.
Unlike Dog Boy, which was ineligible for the Miles Franklin because of its non-Australian setting and characters, The Last Garden unfurls at home, probably in colonial South Australia, which took in a lot of Germans who had fled religious persecution.
“Yes, it’s set in Australia,” Hornung says. “But I was careful to keep it as a kind of parallel reality. It’s not history. It’s invented yet close enough to possible history. The place, the time, the historical context are all invented, but also all perfectly possible.”
Wahrheit, which means truth, is a millenarian settlement. It was set up in anticipation of Christ’s return but, as Hornung says, “the second coming is coming too late”. The small, closed community has fared well. It’s a happy sect, or happy enough. Again, Hornung does not know if there was a German second coming microcosm in colonial SA but says the existence of one would be “perfectly conceivable”.
“I just wanted the freedom to play around with this notion I had that religions and religious texts mediate between people and the natural world.”
Evan Hornung with horses on her farm in the Adelaide Hills