Cosy retreat into mystery, romance
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.