On paper Siddon Rock had many of the elements that I like: magic realism, an Australian setting, a wide cast of odd characters, all in a debut novel and thus a new ‘voice’ to enjoy. It had also garnered a positive appraisal view from Lisa’s excellent review at ANZLitLovers. It had won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. It is also short-listed for the 2010 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in the ‘New Writing’ category. Would it match my expectations?
Siddon Rock is the story of the fictional town of the same name located somewhere in the Australian inland, its founding & naming, and the large cast of characters that inhabit it – many of whom are subject to miraculous visions, and each of whom carry secrets that bubble to the surface and infuse magical events. And it is a very interesting cast of characters, including an agoraphobic Methodist minister, a cross-dressing dressmaker who is Alistair by day, Allison by night, and the disturbed returned soldier Macha Connor, who grew up wanting to be a boy and, whilst serving as a nurse in the war in Europe, comes across her male namesake Mark Connor and takes his place on the front line after his death. There she witnesses the horrors of war and is never the same again, her arrival back into Siddon Rock marked by her naked, vigilant wanderings around the town with her .303. The second half of the book focuses on the arrival of Catalin and her son Jos, émigrés from Eastern Europe, looking for a home and an escape from their own war-torn past.
The novel’s stronger and more interesting characters are all women (or wannabee women in the case of Alistair!). Nell, the maligned local aboriginal woman vies with Granna, caretaker of the Aberline family, for wisdom and mystery, and there is Sibyl the daughter of the local butcher who was abused by her father until he left and now runs the shop herself, always ambushed on Sundays by painful memories of her childhood. Indeed, men come off pretty poorly for the most part, including the befuddled Minister, the barman Kelpie Crush who hides a dark secret, the hapless Young George Aberline, and Fatman Aberline, cousin of Macha, who envies her abilities as they grow up.
Whilst I love the magic realism of Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, or Peter Carey as an Australian example, some of the early fantastic events in Siddon Rock seem so over the top that I found some of images a little jarring for some reason. I also found the writing a little mixed. It is excellent in parts, but some sections seemed not as polished or well-edited as others. I found the constant use of names, particularly surnames, bordering on annoying. Kelpie Crush, barman at the pub run by Marge and Bluey, is pretty much always ‘Kelpie Crush’, hardly ever just ‘Kelpie’. But as a counterpoint there are lovely images such as Henry Aberline sitting on the rock that becomes known as ‘Sitdown Rock’, which is then corrupted to ‘Siddon Rock’. Henry, an Englishman who ventured to Australia in search of a butterfly, forsaking his cotton-mill wealth, eventually disappears, and the family of Jack, the aboriginal guide who lead him to this spot, say of his disappearance: “He’s a butterfly”, and, “He flew”. Henry leaves behind not just an interesting story, but a family tree and the fledgling town which becomes known as Siddon Rock.
Once through the first 50-60 pages or so the writing is more polished. The ideas and images are well chosen and well depicted. Guest has found her stride, and the reading experience is a lot better for it. One of the central themes – that of the secrets the characters carry – really comes together. The idea and image of Catalin’s cello, on which her family history paints itself, is wonderful. There is also the hat that Alistair has designed and asked a Parisian milliner to make for him – it arrives looking nothing like the design he sent away, but the “rich maroon-red to black” and its wings remind us of the exact same colour of the butterfly that Henry had searched for when he also journeyed from Europe to Australia – a nice echo of the magical past in the magical present. There is Young George Aberline’s ill-fated plan to harvest the salt from the lake and sell it as Siddon Rock Salt – a humorous linkage of word and idea. Later, we have Catalin giving a talk on the history of Germany in the war to the school children through the use of shadows thrown onto the wall by her hands – it is a wonderful scene, poetic and emotionally charged.
The story is quite ambitious for a first novel with quite a large cast of characters. The majority of the writing measures up to the ambition very well. It’s just occasionally let down. Take for instance (p114): “And so Majorie began the journey towards her music. We don’t need to follow the beginning story too closely.” (Emphasis added). ‘The beginning story’ sounds awkward. There are many examples like this.
The great thing about the magic realism of Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie or even Peter Carey is that it feels necessary for the story; it adds meaning to the realism. Indeed, I often think that people neglect the second word of that description: magic realism – for the magical seems best when it serves realism rather than be on show for the sake of itself. For the majority, the magic in Siddon Rock serves the story and sense of place very well. There’s a lot to like about it and it is a wonderful debut novel. I think there are some fabulous ideas and some great writing, but it fell just shy of my (probably too high) expectations. That said, I’m very interested to see where Guest’s writing goes from here. Siddon Rock would be a perfect choice for a book-club, with lots to dissect and discuss, including, in my view, the poor ending!
Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest