Review: Driving into the Sun, Marcella Polain

How can she go forward, go anywhere but back, when the past is all we see? Future a creature always approaching, striking us always from behind?

 

I like a balanced book diet. Classics to further my education and knowledge. Non-fiction to give insight and navigation skills for the modern world. Random recommendations, to ensure ‘wild cards’ and connect with my loved ones who are also readers. Literary fiction to challenge myself intellectually and inspire me and savour words. Easy children’s, crime and horror novels to relax and escape.

All give equal joy, in different flavours, and keep my brain healthy and happy.

Like all diets it could be improved. I could seek out more international authors, for example. More books from minority voices. But already there is so much and sometimes such a program gives rise to an uneasy consciousness that there isn’t enough time.

It was this mindset in which I picked up Driving into the Sun, the first literary fiction work I’d read for a while, and felt myself trying to storm through it like it was the new Dervla MacTiernan crime thriller.

Well, it does open with a death: the cruelly sudden taking of a man, a husband and father.

For Orla, a child living in suburban Perth in 1968, her Daddy was everything.

After his death she, her mother and little sister are ripped from their comforting nuclear bubble into a fractured family with a single working mother, in financial and personal limbo.

Orla’s mum is not particularly maternal and her little sister Deebee is not particularly sweet. They all cope in their own private ways, leaving scant room for comforting each other.

Orla, already a quiet child, folds into herself as she grapples silently with a new situation she can’t accept in a world she already scarcely comprehended.

She lacks the bearings we get as adults: the means to tell ourselves stories about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

This book strips away that comforting narrative, catapulting you back to a time in which you had no power and no meaning, except that you could make from your senses, and later, scraps of sentences caught from adults who tossed them carelessly away within earshot.

Orla had overheard her mother telling Kit that he was living with a woman up north. At school, Orla has looked in the atlas. There was a lot of world up north. Maybe Cora missed him like Orla missed her father. If she did, she never let on. And they were adults, Cora, Henry, Kit. She was a kid. And they must know what’s best: not talk about things pretend everything’s normal, and that way it would be.

Privy to Orla’s sight, touch and hearing, and with the benefit of experience, the reader is in the unusual position of knowing what is happening to a character better than the character herself.

This is the second novel of Western Australian author Marcella Polain, whose first novel, The Edge of the World, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

She has also published three books of poetry – and who but a poet can better speak the sense-language of a child, inhabit those levels below conscious meaning?

There was a sound like the flap of a bird’s wing that made her press her eye to one of those gaps. She had seen the old lady before, folding clothes at the washing line next door and she was there again, her back turned, this time pegging up a shirt. She bent slowly, took another from the basket, held it along its bottom edge and flicked it, one, two, three times, that wing-billow sound, then pegged it up beside the other. Shirts hung upside down like kids on monkey bars.

Yet like when reading poetry (or growing through childhood for that matter) a different pace applies. When I tried to read it fast, to find out ‘what happens’, impatient with Orla’s fumbling through life, it began to slip through my fingers.

I was recently at a writing workshop with the author Brenda Walker who spoke about books such as Elizabeth Jolley’s, or Joan London’s – books that “take the reader on a kind of dance”.

“You don’t read them to be taken on a charge through the plot,” she said. “You read them for the atmosphere.

“You have to throw yourself into the sea … it’s quite frightening, but it bears you up.”

She noted that forces such as Netflix and the TV revolution have fundamentally changed storytelling, made it almost entirely about plot and character.

That readers seldom now want to truck “with the oblique and the poetic” – that they respond instead to “limpidity and simplicity”.

I don’t want to be like that, I thought suddenly, 80 pages in. I just bought a novel that took 10 years to write. Why this need to get it done in a weekend?

I slowed down, and began to concentrate. And then I fell in love with this book, which is one of the most pure and true descriptions of grief I have ever read.

It teases you with hope and the possibility of simple redemption and healing, only to trick you back to square one again and again – just as grief itself does. On page 237, completely absorbed, I began to cry.

Polain captures utterly what she has herself phrased as “the complex interior life of children”: that time in which you were so aware of the way everything looked and felt and sounded and tasted, somehow bigger and more intense than now; that time in which your parents were your entire universe, frightening and mystifying and utterly necessary.

So don’t buy this book if you want a whodunit. Buy it if you love words, and want your heart, like Orla’s, to lurch “with loss and wishing”. If you want to explore the deepest experiences of human existence: grief and love and guilt and coming of age.

Buy it if you want to throw yourself into the sea, and have it bear you up.

 

 

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Review: River of Salt, Dave Warner

‘I’ve made some enquiries on your behalf. Shaloub’s bodyguard is a giant, name of Granite. Granite’s no professor but he remembers absolutely every piece of tail set foot in the Cross.’
You might already know Dave Warner’s name. He’s an Australian musician who’s authored three previous crime novels, one of which won the Ned Kelly Award.
He was recently in Perth to promote his latest book, River of Salt, and I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about – I hadn’t actually heard of Dave Warner myself, but I do love Australian fiction and crime fiction, and I was intrigued by the jacket quote from prolific thriller writer Michael Robotham: ‘Part Goodfellas and part love letter to Australian coastal towns, this wonderfully imagined crime novel is like riding the perfect wave.’
It’s 1961 and Blake Saunders, a former Mob hitman from Philadelphia, has escaped that life to start again in a sleepy town on Australia’s east coast. He owns his own bar, the Surf Shack, plays in a band and surfs compulsively, slowly washing clean the sins of his past. But he can never quite lose the feeling there’s a target on his back.
So when a prostitute is brutally murdered in a nearby motel and a piece of evidence at the scene points towards the Surf Shack, Blake feels compelled to act, to clear the wolf from his door once and for all by solving the murder the police seem eager just to tick a box on.
I’m attracted to the writing early – it’s strong and clean and loaded with evocative similes. Like,
skies grey as an elephant’s belly.
And,
The wind probed their clothes like the fingers of a dead man.
And,
His belly pressed flat into the board, which gently rose and fell like a crumb on the chest of a snoozing giant.
And,
He moved quietly as cancer.
If similes don’t excite you as much as they do me you’re a fool, but I’ll tell you more anyway.
Warner spends the early part not launching straight into the mystery, but sketching out a compelling cast of characters who hook you just as well as a bloodied corpse opener would:
Blake, a brooding heartthrob with a dark past and a killer’s instincts, full of guilt and regret. His yardboy Andy, a simple sap who loves the fish in The Surf Shack’s giant tank, and knows them all by name. Bar manager Doreen, beautiful and capable, but nursing a deep loneliness. Crane the beach bum, an alcoholic and a poet. Kitty the innocent, but smart and gutsy teen who wants so much more than what her hometown can offer.
The scene shift from Philly to Australia makes for an attention-grabbing contrast, and the menace and darkness of the Mob bleeds into the new setting quite perfectly. I had wondered how convincing it was going to be, the American fish out of water, but the details laced through are perfect, consistent and never overdone.
And 100 pages in, this simmering mystery comes to a rolling boil, with twist after twist keeping me wildly speculating, heightened in drama by Blake’s personal drive for a solution – and for absolution.
Blake is bound to appeal to readers: the man with dark stains on his conscience, but a moral imperative to act, and a strong sense of justice. Like Jack Reacher, but with a humanising longing for love and redemption.
Perhaps he should have let it go, left it to Harvey to get it right. But he couldn’t … He did not deserve any of this: playing his guitar in his own bar with a beautiful woman like Doreen working alongside him, surfing in the crystal ocean, watching the sun rise like a gold coin over a sheet of pure silver. He’d suspected all along it hadn’t just been gifted to him, that there must be more to it, some fine print like on a winning lottery ticket. This was the fine print. You have to help those who can’t help themselves, you have to protect and serve those who serve you.
Warner has strongly evoked a time and a place; but he has also riffed on honesty, human connection, guilt and love – and how the past will never, really, quite let you go.

‘Girl Painter also Good Cook’: The story of a (female) artist

“Until Nora entered, winning the Archibald had remained the province of male artists for seventeen years. It would be another twenty-two before a woman won a second time.”

In bookstores now.

So begins the biography of Nora Heysen, Australia’s first official female war artist and the first of the country’s biggest art prize, the Archibald Prize for portraiture.

The biography was launched this week by Perth writer and journalist Anne-Louise Willoughby.

And on Thursday, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Willoughby attended the launch of a Melbourne exhibition seeking to restore Heysen to what the author describes as her “rightful place” of prominence in the Australian art world.

Heysen worked alongside her father Hans Heysen, known for his distinctive paintings of the eucalypts surrounding their family home in Hahndorf, South Australia. But she also worked all over the world and made a lifelong friend in urban landscape painter Jeffrey Smart, who regarded her so highly he made himself available to contribute to this biography before his death.

But Heysen spent her life struggling to be recognised as an artist first, and a woman second.

“What was so extraordinary is that while her work and its historical context is covered in art collections, we didn’t know anything about her life,” said Willoughby, a writer with a background in art history.

“These things kept cropping up in my study, that nothing was known about her save a list of her works.

“Why was she the first woman to win the Archibald? How did she come to be the first war artist of Australia? Things like that don’t happen out of the blue.”

Read the rest of this story here on WAtoday.

New Australian fiction: Afternoons with Harvey Beam, by Carrie Cox

As a young man, Harvey Beam got the hell out of his hometown, confirming his suspicions that you can successfully run away from your problems. But after forging a big-city career in talkback radio, Harvey is now experiencing a ‘positional hiatus’. The words aren’t coming out right, Harvey’s mojo is fading and a celebrity host is eyeing his timeslot.

Back in Shorton, Harvey’s father Lionel appears at long last to be dying. It seems it’s finally time for Harvey Beam to head home and face a different kind of music.

In wading through a past that seems disturbingly unchanged, the last thing he expects is a chance encounter with a wonderful stranger…

Perth journalist Carrie Cox is the author of Coal, Crisis, Challenge and You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Bus. This is her debut novel but it reads as though she has been writing fiction for years.

The premise sounds rich with the promise of drama and the narrative didn’t disappoint, unfolding in a way that kept me guessing right up until a neat tail-twist I never saw coming.

Cox has a gift for evoking places and people with deft, apt descriptions that are never laboured or overdone.

Her characters are filled-out, humanly flawed and likeable.

She gracefully manages the balancing act of focusing on and building the internal life of Harvey Beam, while spinning you through the story.

She invites you to understand the joy and madness, the peculiar intimacy and alchemy of the talkback radio world.

She has unerring insight into people and families, but still respects the mysteries at their centres.

Her creation of an eye-rolling teenager in Harvey’s daughter Cate is spot-on. It’s no caricature, however, but a sympathetic and sweet portrait of a girl who becomes an unexpected sidekick for Harvey in his family drama.

The topics are deep but Cox’s touch is light; all the while she is unfailingly, confidently funny.

She has nailed it and I can’t wait for the next book.

*Afternoons with Harvey Beam is at bookshops now. I got mine from Boffins.