Cosy re­treat into mys­tery, ro­mance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Diane Stub­bings

Visit Di Morrissey’s Face­book page and you’ll quickly dis­cover why she’s one of Aus­tralia’s best­selling nov­el­ists: her read­ers adore her.

Tales of women reach­ing for their fu­ture, and in­fused with a heady mix of ro­mance, mys­tery and ad­ven­ture, each of Morrissey’s nov­els is ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated. And they ar­rive like a long sum­mer hol­i­day, a chance to jour­ney to an ex­otic lo­ca­tion — from out­back Queens­land to Guyana; Hawaii to the Kimberley coast — and es­cape, for a time, the te­dium of ev­ery­day life.

Morrissey’s loyal fan base won’t be dis­ap­pointed by Ar­ca­dia, her 26th novel. It trans­ports us to a fam­ily farm on the edge of the Tas­ma­nian wilder­ness, and there’s no deny­ing the beauty and op­u­lence of Morrissey’s ren­der­ing of place: She in­haled the fa­mil­iar dank earthen smell of the spores and de­com­pos­ing wood. She saw new mush­rooms, in­clud­ing odd-shaped gill-like spec­i­mens, which had erupted in soft ex­plo­sions on the for­est floor.

You un­der­stand, read­ing Morrissey’s in­ti­mate ac­counts of old-growth forests, of Tas­ma­nia’s moun­tains, is­lands and rugged coast­lines, why her read­ers dream of trav­el­ling to the set­tings she de­scribes. Morrissey’s ca­pac­ity to make you feel as though you too can hear “the wet wind wrap­ping around the trees” is, I would ar­gue, her great­est strength as a writer.

Into this land­scape, Morrissey places Sally Sand­ford and her best friend, Jessica Foster. Insep­a­ra­ble as chil­dren, the friends find them­selves re­united when Jessica, a re­search sci­en­tist, re­turns to Tas­ma­nia after the break­down of her mar­riage. Jessica comes to stay at Ar­ca­dia, the truffle and saf­fron farm Sally shares with her downto-earth hus­band Toby, her daugh­ter Katie, and her mother Mol­lie.

Sally and Jessica soon find them­selves ven­tur­ing into the caves of the Far For­est, the mass of “an­cient swamp gums” where they spent so much of their child­hood. There they dis­cover an aban­doned hide­away, along with a metal box con­tain­ing pho­to­graphs, a let­ter and other me­men­tos. The dis­cov­ery sets the women off on a search for the truth about the peo­ple in the pho­to­graphs and the con­nec­tion they once may have had with Ar­ca­dia.

In­ter­weav­ing with Sally and Jessica’s search is the story of Stella Hol­land, Sally’s grand­mother. A young art stu­dent, Sally meets and falls in love with Stephen Hol­land, an older doc­tor. When Stephen’s first wife died, she be­queathed him Ar­ca­dia, and Stella is soon cap­ti­vated by its rich flora and fauna, its lan­guid peace.

It’s not too long, how­ever, be­fore both sto­ry­lines take a dan­ger­ous turn: Stella is threat­ened by a strange man she en­coun­ters in the for­est, and a men­ac­ing driver fol­lows Sally and Jessica along a nar­row, wind­ing road. The rest of the novel is a me­an­der­ing race to un­cover the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind these in­ci­dents, not to men­tion fer­ret­ing out who­ever has been raid­ing Ar­ca­dia, steal­ing its truf­fles and rare flow­ers, and what it all has to do with an old house on the north­west coast of the is­land.

It is im­pos­si­ble not to hear the sin­cere plea for the en­vi­ron­ment that Morrissey has em­bed­ded in this novel, and her ar­tic­u­la­tion of the net­work of con­nec­tions that ex­ist below the floor of the for­est, the mesh of roots and spores that binds to­gether not only all of na­ture but hu­man­ity also, echoes the en­treaty Richard Pow­ers makes in his Man Booker short­listed novel The Over­story. That said, the two nov­el­ists couldn’t have taken more di­ver­gent ap­proaches to the same theme.

Ar­ca­dia bub­bles along en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, seem­ing to prom­ise that all will be well as long as we care suf­fi­ciently. There is some­thing nos­tal­gic about this book, de­spite its be­ing set in the present day. Not even all the talk of eco­tourism or gourmet farm­ing can al­lay the sense that we might be in the 1950s, in an Aus­tralia that still re­tains about it some­thing very English. Even the plot­ting is rem­i­nis­cent of Fa­mous Five Bri­tain: covert op­er­a­tions at an iso­lated farm­house, a rogue sci­en­tist, hid­den tun­nels and a smug­glers’ cove.

The world Morrissey gives us here is in­su­lar, con­ser­va­tive. There may be lamen­ta­tions about cli­mate change and the blight of ram­pant de­vel­op­ment, but they are driven as much by a de­sire to pre­serve com­fort­able life­styles as they are about con­cerns for the en­vi­ron­ment, as earnest as those con­cerns may be: Peo­ple come here to get out of the rat race, fol­low a dream, pri­ori­tise fam­ily and health and lifestyle. We just have to be care­ful that we don’t get loved to death, over­run or sold out.

Morrissey’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions never find their way into the struc­tural be­drock of Ar­ca­dia. Rather, they present as re­cur­ring din­ner con­ver­sa­tions. As a re­sult, di­a­logue gets bogged down in ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sions out­lin­ing swaths of lo­cal his­tory or ad­vo­cat­ing a po­si­tion on any­thing from for­eign in­vest­ment to the hor­rors of Syd­ney.

It may seem un­fair to crit­i­cise a writer such as Morrissey for the way she tack­les so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues, but given their promi­nence in Ar­ca­dia it’s dif­fi­cult to ig­nore the in­con­gruities in what she presents. She seems un­aware, for ex­am­ple, of the irony in Sally re­gret­ting the killing of Tas­ma­nia’s in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion, only to seethe a mat­ter of weeks later against the in­jus­tice of an­other white fam­ily mak­ing claim to her land.

Surely we have moved be­yond white mid­dle-class char­ac­ters pa­ter­nal­is­ti­cally ex­claim­ing how “shock­ing and ter­ri­ble” the his­tor­i­cal treat­ment of Abo­rig­ines has been, with­out giv­ing Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple their own voice in our nar­ra­tives. And there is some­thing off-key in the story of a fe­male sci­en­tist (so rare in fic­tion) aban­don­ing her vo­ca­tion when her mar­riage breaks down and re­turn­ing to it only when the male sci­en­tist with whom she falls in love reawak­ens her pas­sion for it.

It is easy (too easy some­times) to get car­ried away by Morrissey’s sto­ry­telling, and when she al­lows her writ­ing to get lost in a mo­ment — an en­counter with an owl in the for­est; two lovers sail­ing along the coast­line — she is a master of the genre. But there are jar­ring notes in Ar­ca­dia as well as har­mo­nious ones, and they reg­u­larly re­mind us how far we are, on this is­land Morrissey de­picts, from mod­ern Aus­tralia. is a writer and critic.

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