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.