Jeremy Chambers, The vintage and the gleaning
There’s something I haven’t had an opportunity to share with you, until now that is – and that is that I love to visit wine regions. Not just because I like wine but also because I like the areas in which wine is made. The landscape is often beautiful, the wineries themselves vary so much in architecture and cellar-style, and, because of the culture that usually attends wine, there is often good dining and, if you’re lucky, some great music too. I was consequently very happy to read The vintage and the gleaning by the new Australian writer, Jeremy Chambers. It is set in in a winemaking town on the Murray River in northeast Victoria, an area I have visited and enjoyed many times – and so I was ready to sit back and enjoy.
And, enjoy it I did. However, there is very little – in fact, I’d go so far as to say none – of the glamour of the wine industry in this book. That this is so is clearly intended by Chambers. As one of the vineyard labourers says near the end, after a night of some violence:
I thought we was meant to be the civilised ones, he says. Winemaking town.
The irony, then, is keenly felt!
So, what is the book about? It doesn’t have a strong plot. Its first person narrator is Smithy, a man who would be in his 60s. He’s now a vineyard labourer, after having been a shearer for 47 years. He’s also now sober, necessitated by poor health from years of heavy drinking. The story takes place over two weeks – starting on Monday and ending two Mondays later – and the novel is structured by the days of this fortnight. Most “chapters” (unnumbered and unnamed) commence with the name of the day, and many are followed by “Spit doesn’t show”: “Tuesday, Spit doesn’t show and Lucy catches a snake”. Spit, we discover, is Smithy’s rather recalcitrant adult son, but the story is not about him. Rather, his chronic absence is symptomatic of the pretty dysfunctional masculinity that is the “stuff” of this novel.
Smithy is a quietly engaging character. Through his inner reflections and discussions with others, particularly the publican’s wife, we learn that drink has been his ruin:
Can’t hardly remember me own life. Because I drank it all away, you understand.
Nowadays I’m doing all the thinking I should have done when I was young … When I could have done things right. But all I got now is memories and regrets. And there’s not a thing in the world I can do about it. That’s it. That’s me life. Gone. Can’t change a thing. Can’t put it right.
Paralleling this is the story of Charlotte, the young woman whom he had found one night on the railway track after she’d been severely beaten by her husband, Brett. In the second half of the novel, just as Brett is being released from jail for this beating, Charlotte (in her mid 30s) stays with Smithy and tells her story. She also sees her life as having “gone”:
I just can’t make a new start … I just can’t. I don’t have it in me anymore. I feel like everything’s over, like it’s already ended …
Chambers gives a lot of time to Charlotte’s story – we learn that she was a “horrible private school bitch” who married Brett, already prone to violence, against her parents’ wishes. She’s inclined to blame others for her troubles – her father who indulged her and Brett for obvious reasons – though she does have the occasional flash of recognition of her own part in her life’s trajectory. And yet, unlike Smithy, who says his life is over but is quietly trying to change, she seems incapable of acting upon the little self-knowledge she has achieved, saying that her life is “not something I can change”. To tell more, however, would give away the plot, such as it is … so we shall leave Smithy and Charlotte here.
While the novel has some awkwardness – Charlotte’s story for example is a little drawn out – my only real reservation relates to the scattered references to Aboriginal Australians, and particularly to the institutionalisation of Aboriginal children. I understand where Chambers’ heart is coming from, but can’t quite connect it all with the rest of the story. It’s perhaps a case of the first-time novelist trying to include too much.
There’s a lot to like about the book. It is carefully structured but not slavishly so. The language evokes the rhythms and atmosphere of the place and its people: birds, insects, the sun, and the ever-present gum trees backdrop the story well and are made to serve the book’s resigned, if not downright foreboding, tone. The dialogue captures what I would describe as “laconic Australian”: terse but with the occasional touch of dry humour. The title is lovely: vintage refers of course to winemaking, but also evokes age in general (and thus Smithy); gleaning is an agricultural term and therefore appropriate, but also implies the gathering of knowledge (such as Smithy does through the course of his life).
This is a very new book, but it has also been reviewed by Lisa at ANZlitLovers. She believes Chambers is a writer to watch, and I can only agree.
The vintage and the gleaning
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010
(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)