In the lead-up to the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, I’ll be putting up a series of (short) reviews of books I’m reading in preparation.
Alec Dearborn is an Australian in British service in WWII. In his first moments of war he parachutes from an attacked plane (over France), lands in a lake, and is rescued from drowning by an enigmatic woman. During the following hours, this English lit and history major, who has tried to maintain his ‘pastoral trust’ while in England, touchingly tries to retain his decorum as he shudders with fear, strangeness and pain. He struggles with the decision to stay in the woman’s house (with its presence of the enemy), as he is injured, or to go and find his ‘fellows’, which he feels is the correct course of action.
From here, the novel charts an almost otherworldly connection—over space and time—between Alec and ‘the lake woman’. Through Alec and his struggle, Gould theorises on the meaning of concepts like coincidence, hope, honour, commitment and survival on a small, tangible level within the context of great, unfathomable danger and tragedy.
How does someone make a decision in a difficult, chaotic time; in a situation s/he had not been trained to expect? Gould explores the repercussions of the decisions made, throughout the rest of the book. The Lake Woman is affecting, though the level of coincidence, of enchantment and destiny, does mean the novel requires quite a suspension of disbelief. It does stay with you, particularly the moments from early on in the novel when Dearborn lies with Vivianne, or mamzelle, as he thinks of her, and when they play piano over the sounds of war. The writing (after the opening, which is a little overbearing) is charmingly poetic and sort of old-fashioned.
The Rip is a collection of stories, some of them very brief, about people surviving within a landscape, and surviving each other. I’ve always enjoyed Drewe’s work, particularly the novel Grace, and these stories have a fairly detached tone; they leave plenty of space for the reader. Many have very open endings. The characters are highly recognisable, particularly if you’ve lived in regional or small-town Australia. In most of the stories, the characters start out with an idea (about life, about where they are) and then experience some shift. This shift often reveals their humanity, or sometimes, simply, their weakness.
In ‘Masculine Shoes’ an American location scout is checking out a Queensland island. He can’t bring his precious cowboy boots (that he wears everywhere, they’re part of his identity) because of the weather conditions, so he buys ‘yak shoes’. But the (what he perceives to be) feral dogs on the island like his shoes a little too much. He meets an attractive ‘octopus stylist’ who is arranging food for a TV commercial. I won’t ruin the ending, but Mr Masculine Shoes learns something very unexpected when he forced into a corner, shoe-wise.
‘Prometheus and Greg’ explores a small-town family: the respected businessman and the two sons—opposites of one another—and how they fare with the patriarchal pressure and the changing times. In ‘How to Kill a Cane Toad’ a ‘tree-changing’ couple find all sorts of new noises and menaces in the country. ‘The Water Person and the Tree Person’ is about misunderstanding, miscommunication and the roles people give each other (here, in a marriage). The ending is a poignant, though pretty overt, metaphor about the distance between two people.
There are plenty of other highlights, including ‘Sea Level’ about a tsunami warning entering a classroom, and ‘The Lap Pool’, about a city man in the country, a former company director under indictment. The country won’t let him get away with it…
There are characters who are running away from something, or being run away from (often for some kind of ‘spiritual journey’). Some of the stories have poignant endings, and considerations. And many of them are very wry. I definitely enjoyed the collection.
I will be chairing ‘An Australian in Paris: Setting Fiction Overseas’, with Alan Gould, Marele Day and Kirsten Tranter at 11:40am on Sunday 25 March. And I’ll be chairing ‘The Power of the Story’ (on short fiction) with Robert Drewe, Charlotte Wood, and Marele Day at 2:15pm that afternoon. Find out more about the festival here.