Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath

September 2009
9781921372964 (Aus, Grove US)

There’s no doubt Cate Kennedy is one of Australia’s most perceptive writers. Her short stories, which can be found in various journals and the collection Dark Roots, are rich in character and often contemplate moments of connection, all the misfires and failed connections, and their consequences.

In The World Beneath, Rich wants to reconnect with his 15-year-old daughter, Sophie. He hasn’t seen her since she was a toddler when he ran off, achingly restless, from her mother, Sandy. Sandy and Rich had been, in their own small way, trying to change the world, to save the environment, to do something and capture something worthwhile. Years later they are still clinging to this time, a few days in their lives when they were part of something bigger – the Franklin blockade in Tasmania.

Rich is still restless and moving about, lamenting the past loss of a photograph he took on the river, due to an embarrassing stumble. Sophie has become the focus of Sandy’s life – but through an idealistic lens. Sandy doesn’t believe in a suffocating and intrusive version of motherhood (she is avoiding being like her own mother). Sandy is, in the crudest of terms, a kind of ageing hippy, and in her daughter’s eyes – rather weak, annoying and useless.

Sophie is the most interesting character for me: deeply defiant, strict, harsh on herself and others, focused, insightful and resourceful. Her severe physical regimen of very little food and lots of exercise until she is exhausted and burning shows a determination to have some control over an erratic and uncontrollable world – in the home and outside it. She’s one of the first characters I’ve read (outside of YA fiction) who is a compellingly (and perhaps frighteningly) realistic representation of some women of a younger generation.

It’s difficult not to take on Sophie’s annoyance at Sandy and Rich, and to see their pathetic failures (as she might put them) through her eyes. Sandy is completely blind to her daughter’s problems, wrapped up in a tarot card haze – but you never doubt her love for her. It’s just that, frankly, she’s a little too self-absorbed and living in the past to try too hard to understand her daughter. Her willingness to let Sophie be could be a disguise for her fear for all the things she doesn’t understand about her and the younger generation. For example, when Sandy finds out about Sophie’s blog My Crap Life:

‘There was Sophie’s face on the screen, indisputably hers, glowering out from under a curtain of black fringe, so it must have been true. Fourteen years old, and this other life going on like a secret parallel universe, served up here now in a fait accompli, something for Sandy to accidentally stumble across when it was all too late.’

As Rich wants to reconnect with his daughter, he plans a six-day walk in the Tasmanian wilderness for the two of them. There are then the parallel stories of Sandy at a retreat (looking for answers, or simply distracting herself, through all sorts of ridiculous New Age rituals) and Rich and Sophie trekking. The themes of connection are strong: father desperate from a particular kind of admiration from estranged daughter; Sandy struggling to connect with her present and to a deeper extent, with her daughter; what it now means to ‘connect’ with the wilderness – to capture it, to trample over it, to just ‘be’ in it? And disconnection, too – between generations, with the aid of technology (such as Sophie’s continual iPod/mobile phone use), and between human beings and the environment.

While I was completely absorbed by the characters and the masterful, perceptive descriptions in this book, I had some trouble with the pace, and the beginning. It is Kennedy’s first novel, and it must be a difficult thing when such a well-known short story writer either decides or is subtly pressured into the novel form, as it is this culture’s norm. (I should note, Kennedy has also written poetry, and a travel memoir Sing and Don’t Cry.) On the whole, she is successful, but the beginning features too much of Sandy – the internalisations are humorous, but I also felt I was told too much in the first chapter about what kind of person she was, and I was annoyed at her. I was also confused about where I was being placed, in terms of the story to come.

It takes a little while for anything to happen and there seems to be many unnecessary flashbacks to Sandy doing the same thing (at the retreat) through the novel. Tension builds, mostly from an injury Rich has sustained and kept secret, but the tension doesn’t really build to a high point (or the climactic scenes continue at a yoga-breath pace). The chapters are like a series of very small realisations and revelations about one another – and the desire for more or stronger revelations from one another. But each chapter is worth it for the richness of perception in Kennedy’s writing – you just never know when she’s going to throw another gem at you:

‘God, the way a smell could bloom like a blown ember in your brain, fresh and sharp as turning over a log to expose all the dark life that swarmed beneath it. Sight and sound had nothing on smell. You unzipped your old sleeping bag, opened an old book, lit a mosquito coil, and it was like stepping on a mine. It made you realise everything was stored, nothing was forgotten, just waiting for the saturation of memory to overspill and flick some switch.’

There is one reason I really appreciate this novel and would recommend it, particularly to my parents’ generation, in the same way I might recommend The Slap. Why? This is a novel so deeply reflective of the effect of the failures of one generation on another. And particularly a generation who hoped for so much but settled quickly for less, who mostly turned from taking action to buying things – buying things that remind them of the time, and that fill up the holes created by rapid change and time speeding by. Who is this adult in front of me? Oh, it’s my daughter. Why is she so surly? It’s the technology, it’s society, it’s the media. It has nothing to do with me. Not that Sophie escapes any blame for her actions – she is a completely autonomous character, and many other readers (perhaps older) will feel differently, more confused and upset about her than I do. The failures aren’t just heaped upon Sophie, but are present in Sandy and Rich and their memories, their attempts and their distractions.

This, from Sophie’s chapter when Rich and her visit a museum in Tasmania and view the footage of the last Thylacine:

‘Terrible, wrecked world, she thought. All of it sinking and melting and going under, the patches of green turning brown. Nothing good left, everything torn up and eaten and destroyed, everything dumped in the next generation’s lap.’

2 thoughts on “Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath

  1. Great review Ange, and exactly how I felt about the book after reading it. I loved the writing so much – you’ve picked out some of my favourite passages here, but I did struggle a bit with the pace and with the character of Sandy.

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