ISBN 9780143009634 (paperback, August 2009)
It’s 1964 in small-town South Australia and Robert Burns (like the poet) is on the cusp of adolescence. ‘Happiness is a default state’, he narrates, looking back. Reading it, no matter when or where you grew up, one can relate to that simplicity, the time before ‘adult’ aspects of the world became magnified. Robbie has an as-yet uncomplicated friendship with Billy, an Aboriginal boy, whom he goes rabbiting with; and a cop for a father, so manages to get up to a fair bit of mischief.
High school begins and of course, everything changes. Robbie’s teacher is Miss Peach – a doll-like mod vision in ski pants and ballet flats, who travels on a Vespa and isn’t much older than the oldest students. Robbie is at first confused by the way she makes him feel, challenging his burgeoning sexual curiosity, along with his creative imagination.
Robbie experiments in his backyard with chemicals, and experiments on paper with intergalactic and far-future adventures. Soon these creative outpourings become tied in with his fascination for Miss Peach, who encourages him with his writing. She also tries to culturally influence the small, mostly disinterested town with appreciation nights – foreign films, poetry and so on. Her naivete means she fails to realise most of the participants come for their appreciation of her.
Goldsworthy is an exceptional and enticing writer, who gets you tangled-up in nostalgia through careful and relevant descriptions – the Beatles (though Miss Peach prefers classical music), the wonders of the universe, the social class distinctions and gender roles, the racism that even Robbie inadvertently inflicts on his best mate, and the language and fashions. The novel is also infused with sexual desire – the intensity of those first misdirected physical urges, mixed with emotion – described vividly. There are many memorable secondary characters. Miss Peach remains partly enigmatic all the way through, as seen through Robbie’s eyes, which is effective. There are her wine-swilling colleagues who make snarky comments and provide comic relief. There is a visiting poetry professor who we see as both intense and pathetic. Goldsworthy is a master at maintaining voice but allowing us insight through the rendering of gestures and actions.
I have been a fan of Goldsworthy since reading The List of All Answers, his collected short fiction, but this is the first novel of his I have read. The story slowly builds to a nail-biting dramatic crescendo. The events near the close are surprising, but I did find myself a little shocked, and almost disappointed. Goldsworthy attempts to counteract the shock with a drawn-out dénouement in the future/present. The closure is required, but I found myself wanting to stay back there in 1964 with fantastical dreams of the present. For the vivid, sense-charged depiction of story and character I will continue to work my way through the Goldsworthy oeuvre.