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Archive for April, 2014

Coal Creek by Alex MillerCoal Creek sees Alex Miller, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin Award, return to his ‘stone country’ roots. Set mostly in the aftermath of WWII, it’s the story of Bobby Blue (Blewit), told in a distinctive first person voice that is suffused with the simple yet wise lyricism of the people of the scrub country that comprises the Queensland ranges inland from Townsville.

Uneducated, innocent and warm-hearted, Bobby works as a stockman with his father until his father dies (his loving mother having died earlier), at which point Bobby, aged 20, gets a job working as a deputy offsider to Mount Hay’s new policeman, Daniel Collins.

Collins is an educated man who served in New Guinea during the war. He has moved up from the coast with his wife Esme and their two girls, Irie and Miriam. He does not understand the people of the ranges, nor its country. He has brought with him books on geology, as if they might offer a way of comprehending this unfamiliar landscape. But its secrets will not come to him that way. When Bobby is out riding with him, Bobby ‘soon seen he never knew he was being watched. I knew from that he was not the man for that country.’ Bobby thinks his father would have taken one look at Collins and walked the other way.

Daniel puts the locals offside, and Esme’s ‘high morals’ prove problematic. She has very strong ideas on how Daniel should police, and her suffocating parenting alienates her daughters (they start to go off into the unforgiving scrubs to get away from her).

Bobby’s lifelong friend is Ben, a volatile man who lives out by Coal Creek with Deeds, an Aboriginal girl in her mid-teens. Bobby and Ben grew up together, the pair of them going out with their fathers and working for the stockholders in the region. Bobby holds a strong plutonic love for Ben. And “Love is faith. It does you good to have it, but it usually has a price to it.” If it all comes down to it, Bobby knows he will be on Ben’s side.

Bobby is looking back on events and regularly foreshadows some sort of trouble to come. ‘I did not expect things to work out the way they did’, he writes, and thinks this of his dead mother’s gift of foresight thus: “… I seen that far-off knowing look in her eyes. Which she only had for me, like she sensed the terrible thing that was to happen lying out there waiting in the path of my future…” She tells him: ‘We all hang on the cross, Bobby Blue.’

Bobby had a loving and close relationship with his mother, and a deep respect of his father who could always see trouble coming and who didn’t suffer fools. Bobby suffers Daniel and Esme because of his friendship with Irie. Going on thirteen, she teaches Bobby how to read and a strong bond is formed between them, a bond that proves disastrous. He doesn’t see anything untoward in his relationship with her. He says he will wait for her to ‘come into her womanhood’. Not surprisingly, her parents think otherwise, and things spiral out of control for the lot of them as suspicions turn into mistrust and misunderstanding.

Miller evokes the landscape beautifully. It underpins every passage, and Bobby’s love of it is pervasive:

…them long rolling ridges of scrub, one after the other as far as the eye can see, going on into the haze of the day like a dream till you forget where you are. Just played-out mining and poor scrub country, that is all it is, fit only for them half-wild cattle and that was all the good it ever was. My country. I have no other.

It is tough country, a place where clouds run elsewhere. It is the country of the Old People, the local Murri Aborigines:

Them Old People knows things we whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us.

One can’t help but feel as though some of that dust has gotten under the skin of Miller too, for the landscape he so lovingly paints seems an inseparable part of him.

Coal Creek delves into the nature of friendship amidst competing loyalties; it’s about betrayal and how love endures. It shows us yet again how suspicion breeds misunderstanding. It is a wise hymn to the stone country and the Old People. Winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, it is a very satisfying read.

Miller will talk about Coal Creek at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I’ve already got my ticket.

Coal Creek by Alex Miller

2013

Text

291 pages

ISBN: 9781743316986

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

 

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A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBrideA Girl is a Half-formed Thing is stylistically unlike anything I have read. An uncompromising coming of age tale, it is told in truncated sentences that cut like a sharpened blade (and proved quite the jolt after reading the luscious prose of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby!).

It is the story of an unnamed Irish girl growing up in a dysfunctional family, with a troubled mother (‘Mammy’) who maintains an obsessive devotion to the rituals and rites of Catholicism; a brother who had brain cancer when our narrator was very young and is compromised both mentally and physically because of the surgery required to remove the tumour; and a malevolent and predatory uncle, to whom she loses her virginity at the tender age of thirteen. The father left when she was two, perhaps earlier.

The relationship with her brother is the only pure love she has in her life, but as in all sibling relationships, troubles loom as she grows up and feels herself leaving him behind.

It is a challenging read, certainly at first. Here is the open:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Even in these opening lines, it is clear something is wrong in her life. This is the voice of the girl as a two-year old, but even as she grows and becomes an adult, the prose remains in this unsettled state. Don’t be put off. I soon got used to it. There is a remarkable musicality in sections, particularly with the dialogue, which sits subsumed within paragraphs a little like the dialogue of a Jose Saramago work, only cut-up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some wonderful moments of levity. Like any two year old with an independent streak (she is ‘boldness incarnate’), our narrator gleefully escapes the bath her mother has run:

I’ll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs as fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead. In my eyes. Nettling them. Mammy. Yelling Lady you come back or you’ll get what for.

And when crotchety Grandpa visits, he chastises the girl’s mother for letting her do forward rolls in a skirt. ‘It’s disgusting. It’s perverted. Underwear on display. What kind of carry-on is that? How is she supposed to be a child of Mary?’

Her estranged father dies of a stroke when she is thirteen, and Mammy and the two children move to a new home, a new school. Life is difficult. She doesn’t fit in at all. The boys bully her brother, and she often fails to intervene, giving rise to guilt – that most Catholic of weights, which is ever-present.

Water is a recurring motif, from the bath escape as a toddler right to the end, underlining the need (hope?) for a baptismal cleansing of the soul to which our narrator clings. It is even there, albeit obliquely, when her visiting uncle takes advantage of the impure thoughts she has about him: ‘He kisses me. The deep again.’ She goes on to think he tasted like ‘something deep’ too. The morning after the kiss she goes off and ‘falls’ deliberately into the nearby lake. On her return she meets her uncle in the kitchen, still soaking wet, while the others are asleep, and what follows is breathtaking, as the uncle has intercourse with her. As they begin:

That’s a thrill of me. That I am. Feeling running rivers over me. Running falls. I’m splashing falling into it. His cheek on my head. His dark hair. That I am warm in this. Full up. True. Here we are. Here we are. We eventually are here. Go let myself down in this.

It was only on reflection that I wondered whether the ‘we’ referred to here is her and her brother rather than her and her uncle; that is, the hopeless happiness she feels here is something that reminds her of the times she and her brother used to swim as kids, when ‘my feet are silver kicking through the frozen clouds beneath us’, times where she was whole, happy, pure. It’s difficult to tell. But she definitely returns to water throughout, and the release it offers from something too painful for her to carry.

The kitchen scene is not the most shocking in the book. Discovering a dark power in her detached sexuality, she gives herself to pretty much every boy and man she comes across, both in school and then in college, developing a taste for masochism as she loses her grip on what it means to be whole. She is the ‘half-formed thing’ of the title. At one point she contemplates telling us her name, but keeps it to herself; she has so little faith in people she cannot even trust us with that.

Later scenes with her uncle left me gobsmacked. Not even Jesus can save her: ‘If Jesus was here he’d have gone. Running. Screaming with his sandals all flapping in through the cow shit.’ What is gripping about these passages is the stifling compression the fragmented prose creates. Some passages left me feeling almost winded. And the moment her brother apologises to her and Mammy for something he feels guilty about is absolutely heartbreaking.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is writing at its most powerful. The story elements are not particularly new, but the package matches Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (my review) for intensity. It’s a one-off, and should be celebrated.

McBride is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) (www.swf.org.au for details). I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about her journey to publishing this firecracker of a novel.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

2013

Text

262 pages

ISBN: 9781922182234

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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