I’m a little embarrassed to say that until The lakewoman was shortlisted in the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, I only knew of Alan Gould as a poet. Turns out, though, that he has written several novels, of which this one is his most recent. It is, ostensibly, a war novel, in that much of it is set in or around World War 2, but it is not in fact about the war.
It’s an intriguing book that slides literally and metaphorically between the solidity of the earth and the fluidity of water, between pragmatism and magic (or enchantment). It tells the story of Alec Dearborn, an Australian grazier’s son who was born in 1918. He goes to Cambridge in England and, when the war starts, decides to join up with the British Army rather than return home. The novel starts with his having landed in a lake, after parachuting from a plane for the D-Day Invasion. He is drowning, dragged down by his weapons bag and parachute, but is rescued by – yes – a lady in a lake. Ha! Now you see why it is called a “romance” because, while it contains “a” romance, it also hearkens back to the “romances” of yore, like the Arthurian legend. Here is the set up, pp. 2-3:
As he vomited he also wondered why this sudden young Mamzelle happened to be present at the exact, unlikely spot in France where his foolish body had come to earth. It was a question that would usefully occupy his mind later, when he was behind the wire with the austere leisure to brood on the magic that settled into his life following this, his fluky rescue. Magic? He was not a fellow given to outlandish notions, and would interrogate the dubious word, looking for its sense, not in mumbo jumbo, but as some friable quantity existing within the very crevices of everyday occasions.
In this passage, we see how carefully Gould has laid out his novel. He introduces us to the ideas of coincidence (fluke) and magic versus the everyday business of living, and he uses foreshadowing to distract us from plot issues (what will happen next) towards more interior ones (what is the meaning of what happens). As the novel progresses, this fellow who is not given “to outlandish notions” finds himself drawn, almost telepathically (it seems), to his rescuer. She , Viva, rather like the Arthurian lady-in-the-lake, frames the rest of his life, one way or another.
What happens on the surface of the novel is fairly matter-of-fact. Alec’s life runs its course in a mostly unremarkable way. One of the central questions of the book is that which Alec poses to his sister, Bell, a little while after he returns to Australia:
What I can’t work out is […] Well, how a person knows whether the existence he’s been given has been of value to anyone else.
This is Alec’s conundrum. He does not fulfil the traditional expectations of a grazier’s son (“Dearborn”, after all), despite his “prospects” : he’s intelligent, sensitive, and physically capable (“the dynamism in balance with the dreaminess”). Much of this failure stems from his being “disarmed” on June 6, 1944, by Viva. There are some lovely, appropriate wordplays in the novel, and one of these centres on the idea of disarming/arming, which works beautifully against the novel’s military background:
‘If you think about me, then, when you are gone, I will be arming you still,’ she assured him, mysteriously.
Soon after he leaves her, he ponders what has occurred:
‘I feel distress at having relinquished you,’ he supplied on consideration. For it was distress, he recognised, to be walking away from this sudden new claim on his life. ‘It is this that has disarmed me, I reckon,’ he explained for her.
I will be arming you, she reminded.
It is difficult with this WordPress theme to get the formatting right: this last statement by her is in italics in the novel and suggests either his memory of her words or an actual telepathic communication. Which one it is, is one of the lasting ambiguities of the novel. Italics are used throughout the novel for “communications” like this and for interior monologues/reflections, usually Alec’s, since this is a third person narrative, told mostly from Alec’s point of view.
By now you may be thinking that this novel is a fantasy, even a romantic fantasy, but not so. Neither is it magical realist. It’s simply that there is a sense that slightly mystical things may be happening, things that make sense psychologically but that also convey another plane of human thought and behaviour. It reminded me, at times, of Patrick White‘s Voss, but to suggest more than that would be to do it a disservice because it is not at all derivative. Rather, it is simply that the story focuses on a dimension of experience that can’t always be logically explained but that is nonetheless very real. Gould has, I think, pulled this dichotomy off, by careful manipulation of tone: through language that is poetic but not overdone; a pacing that is meditatively slow at the beginning and pragmatically faster at the end; evocative chapter titles (such as “To Fling the Lovely Foolish Body”, “Had You Down Dead”); the occasional light touch (“‘You are the invasion?’, she asked”); and timing that foreshadows just enough to make sure we stay focused on the ideas and not the facts.
And for me, the main idea (the one that provides an “undercurrent” to all the others) is that of completing the self, which is something Alec struggles to do. In the end though:
…the joy, the completion was her presence, and the talk was strangely superfluous. Yet by convention they did talk from some region of the mind where the words did not especially matter but the proximity of the person created an entirety of being.
This is a rather melancholic, but by no means sentimental, book – and it moved me deeply.
North Melbourne: Arcadia, 2009