In the postscript to her novel A break in the chain, Tangea Tansley quotes Doris Lessing‘s statement that ‘fiction is better at “the truth” than a factual record’. This gets to the nub of my challenge with this book, which is a fictionalised account of three generations of the author’s family, particularly her great grandparents and grandparents. As I was reading it I was reminded of Kate Grenville‘s discussion in Searching for the secret river on how she commenced writing The secret river as nonfiction and ended up writing fiction. But more on that anon.
There’s a lot to like about this book, particularly if you are interested in Australian social history. It starts in Prussia in 1856 with a young man, Simon Kosmanske (later Kozminsky), playing violin to the cows on his father’s dairy farm. His father, Moses, does not think Simon is taking his work seriously enough, and so orders him to “Go to Australia and make an old man proud”. Australia, at the time, was of course at the height of the gold rush and was many a man’s destination. Simon, though, didn’t want to go, but go he did – and he eventually established Kozminsky, the fine jewellery and objet d’art store that still operates in Melbourne.
The novel chronicles in five parts the story of Simon, his marriage to Emma, and of his son Israel and his marriage. The first part which describes Simon’s trip to Australia and his first years in the colony as he tries to establish himself is fascinating. And then the story moves into the main drama which gives rise to the title. This drama centres on Judaism, its observance, and decisions made to marry within or outside of the faith. It is an intriguing story with some strong and interesting characters. However, as Tansley explains in her enlightening postscript, there are many gaps in knowledge about some of the key characters, particularly Emma. She writes:
For a family of journalists and writers, my family has left behind a sad lack of primary source material: no journals or diaries or letters and a dearth of documents of any kind. This meant that what was originally planned as a documented biographical work became instead a hybrid – a family memoir laced with fiction.
Those of you who know the Kate Grenville saga regarding The secret river will see why I was thinking of it as I read this book. I’m not sure that Tansley has pulled it off quite as well as Grenville. I wonder whether, in fact, she kept too close to the “facts” while aiming to write fiction. She writes, again in the postscript:
I resisted the temptation to write Emma into a fictional background, although Kozminsky family stories present a number of alternative lives for Emma.
Grenville, on the other hand, moved more thoroughly into fiction, changing the name of her protagonist from that of her ancestor, which freed her to explore more creatively just what might have happened in the lives of settlers like her ancestor. She did this because she found her factual account wasn’t working. Grenville says:
I was determined to write a book of non-fiction, but the only parts of this ‘assembly’ that were interesting were the ‘flights of fancy’ where I’d created the flesh to put on the bones of research. Where, in a word, I’d written fiction.
Grenville started off researching Solomon Wiseman because she “needed to know” what had happened in the early settlement, particularly between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants. Tansley wrote her book to search out the “truth”, for past and future generations of her family but also “to fill what I see as a gap in the settler history of Victoria”. These goals she achieves pretty well, particularly the latter one, but I think she has used the story-telling mode of fiction to give us the “facts” rather than get to those larger “truths” that we can find in fiction. And this is probably because the story’s drama is hampered by her decision to not tackle the central mystery: what was Emma’s past that affected her so, and why, without giving anything away, did the family react as they did to Israel’s marriage? It is in this, I think, that the “truths” can be found. Without them, we have an interesting story, a good social history, but we don’t understand the real “truth” behind the “break in the chain”.
Overall, though, Tansley’s style is sure. She uses a chronological narrative structure, with a third person point of view in which the perspective shifts occasionally from character to character. These work well for the story she wants to tell. While there’s the occasional misstep in the writing (a forced image, or a too-obvious statement), she also writes some lovely descriptions particularly as the novel progresses and she warms to her story. Take this for example:
Bending to the ground he pulled at a shoot of grass only to find that an entire yard of runner came loose with it. He flung it away. Damned rhizomes. They had a lot in common with extended families. Not much to be seen on the surface, but underneath you could be sure there was a vast network of tentacles working away in their subterranean hideout, linked for the term of their natural lives in dark and closeted conspiracy.
My final assessment? Well, it’s interesting for its social history. It’s also engaging for Tansley’s generosity towards her characters despite their flaws and the mistakes they make. And I enjoyed the opportunity it has given me to further tease out my response to the history-as-fiction question. I’ll conclude though on another question. Emma says to Israel that “the past is only good for the experience it provides”. Does this imply a duty to share the past (something Emma herself doesn’t do)?
A break in the chain: The early Kozminskys
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2011
Review copy supplied by Affirm Press
* The cover image is a detail from Frederick McCubbin‘s Study in blue and gold. The subject is Eileen Kozminsky, Tansley’s grandmother.