Eva Hor­nung’s first novel in nine years ven­tures into a bes­tial world where tragedy and re­li­gion meet, writes Stephen Romei

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘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

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