Reading Australia

This week has been Australia week. It kicked off with a book recommended by a friend: The Burial by Courtney Collins. scan0008Although this novel starts with an infant burial, much of the story is told from the deceased infant’s point of view. Which may seem strange, but actually works, in a literary sense anyway. The main character is a woman called Jessie, she is let out of prison and given to her guardian, FitzGerald. He is a rogue, his main source of income is from rustled cattle and horses; he has another person in his thrall, an Aboriginal tracker. Neither the girl nor the tracker can get away, since they are deeply implicated in Fitz’s business and the word of an ex-prisoner with a long history of thieving and an Aborigine would not stand much of a chance against the word of a white man should the law come to get them .

In extremis Jessie takes the law into her own hand, and takes off with her horse Houdini. The tracker arrives later to find her gone and the homestead burned to the ground. His only recourse is to find a policeman and between them they set out to track Jessie. She meanwhile is having adventures of her own, away off in the mountains. The policeman also has good reasons to want to find her, since he has a history with her too.

Landscape and memory play an important part in this novel. It is not so much a case of “never stepping into the same river twice” as of the land holding the memory of all the people who have trodden in its dust. The Australian landscape, the plains and hills which form the backdrop of this extraordinary tale are filled with the songs of the past, whether from the wind in the trees or the sound it makes blowing through the caves; and the sense that those caves have of being lived in for a long, long time.

Courtney Collins is a new voice from Australia, this debut novel is both visceral and muscular, it has emotional depths that draw you right into the circuit of danger where Jessie lives, so that although some of her actions seem barbaric the reader is still hoping that she will win out in the end.

The next book is a later arrival from the pen of Gillian Mears. She has already has several novels and short stories published, but this is her first novel for sixteen years. Foal’s Bread is a horsey book, by which I mean that the horses are as much characters as the people that own them and ride them. Once again the landscape is an essential part of the book. The landscape around Wirri in New South Wales is made famous but a large group of Aboriginal painters, the mountains and valleys feature strongly in their naturalistic westernised paintings (although I cannot be certain that this is the place that is being described in this book, my memory of the paintings suggests very much that it is).

scan0009The central location is a farm called One Tree, which sports a magnificent jacaranda tree in front of the Main House. The property is owned by the Nancarrows, Roley being the remaining son, a competition winning high jump rider who marries Noah Childs. So once again, this is a book that is often about a woman with horses, one who also loses her first born child, for different reasons just as uncanny; furthermore the dead infant haunts her for the remainder of her life, and every tragedy and vicissitude that follows seem to her to be a punishment for that primal action.

Even if you are not really the slightest bit interested in competitive riding, this is a most compelling book. The descriptions of family life, the awful accidents that can happen so easily on a farm together with the drain on Australian manhood in the First and Second World War, leaving untold numbers of unmarried or widowed women working the land; the bitter struggles against floods, drought, storms and heat, with exciting and detailed description of horse jumping against enormous fences on brave horses is riveting.

Reading these two books one after the other was a miracle of luck, they had a lot in common and at the same time were wildly different. This book reminded me very much of Horses’ Heaven by Jane Smiley, but in case you get the wrong idea, I am not a horse-mad female forever longing for a ride. Just occasionally though, I pick up a horsey book and really love it.

Finally, another debut novel, another Australian woman writer: Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett. The Southern Ocean, oily, unpredictable and dangerous, but with a surfer’s wave like no other. Joe and Miles both love to surf, but Harry is afraid of the water. He spends time on the beach looking for treasures, one day he finds a midden, a pile of empty mollusc shells left by the nomadic Aboriginal people, and he realises how very ancient the place is, that people long dead had been here and that one day too, he would die.

Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water – black and cold and roaring. Rolling out the invisible paths. The ancient paths to Bruny, or down south along the silent cliffs, the paths out deep to the bird islands that stand tall between nothing but water and sky.

Wherever rock comes out of deep water, wherever reef rises up, there is abalone. Black-lipped soft bodies protected by shell.

Treasure.

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Two brothers, Miles and Harry, live with their father, a deep sea fisherman; their mother has died in a motor accident; an older brother Joe has been living with the grandfather but he has died and their Aunt Jeannie has decided to sell his house, so Joe is thinking of moving on. Their Uncle Nick has also died, apparently at sea and so Miles is having to team up at sea with his father and Jeff on their fishing expeditions.

Harry is often alone, there is often very little to eat and an existence of unparalleled brutality is the order of the day. His father and Jeff treat him abominably, and Miles too is often on the end of a brutal knock down. His aunt, although not physically violent doesn’t seem to be very caring either. Lonely and often heartsick, Harry makes friends with an outcast George and his dog, Jake.

But the sea can give and it can take, and as much as the landscape is a character in the previous two books, the sea is a character in this one. I often found myself gasping for air as the cold waves washed over my head…

For a first novel this is an astonishingly accomplished piece of writing, I read on often with tears spurting down my cheeks. A stunning debut and another novel is on its way. Favel Parrett is definitely a writer to look out for.

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