Susan Hawthorne, Limen (Review)
Limen is a lovely word, isn’t it? It’s the title of Susan Hawthorne’s recently published verse novel. You probably know what it means, but just in case you’d forgotten like I had, it means threshold or doorway. This Limen though is a verse novel!
If you are uncertain about novels in verse, this would be a great one to try. The story is easy to follow; the language spare and beautiful, but accessible. It has a chronological structure with nine parts (titled Day 1 to Day 9) bookended by a Prologue and an Epilogue. The plot is straightforward. It’s about two women (Woman 1 and Woman 2) who go on a camping trip to the river – a favourite spot – with their young dog (Dog) . They arrive, full of anticipation for a good time, but “thunderclouds gather/on the horizon”. Overnight it rains and by Day 6, the longest section in the novel, they are trapped by the rising river. The story is told through the eyes of these three characters, each having a clearly defined role and personality.
Woman 1 is the driver and, perhaps because of this, is the more anxious one. She can’t sleep at night (“sleep avoids me/my head pops up”, “river rises by stealth/night terror”). Woman 2 is initially less worried, reporting on their activities (“we make lunch/talk in the dampness”) and on how Woman 1 is going, but as the waters rise she too becomes concerned:
she tells me her fears
only now do I understand
her restless checking of the river at night
The dog remains calm, caring only for physical comforts (“my ever-filling bowl/gone”), stick-chasing games, and the presence of its owners (“I sleep/curled paws/your body warm next to mine”).
Two men they had met in the local town appear, tow their bogged car out, and leave, telling them “you’ll be right mate” (in the italics Hawthorne effectively uses for dialogue). However, the river defeats them once again so they decide to “stay with the car”. Two young indigenous men, brothers and miners, appear, offer help, then set off to walk to the mine when the river can’t be crossed. The women, worried about the young men’s safety despite “their bush knowledge/carried on down the generations”, wait. Finally, other cars appear and they face the river crossings in convoy…
Limen is a beautiful read. It has its tensions but it’s not a thriller. The strangers they meet are not sinister, but just other people trying to manage the flooding river. The lack of names for any of the characters gives it a mythic tone. Hawthorne describes the joys of camping – the physical beauty, the spiritual peace, the time for talk and reflection – and the disappointments and fears – the pig-hunting that destroys the tranquility, the floods that threaten their safety. The writing is spare. There’s lovely imagery referencing female lives (“the river is a necklace of pools”, “paperbark/ruffled as a frilled ballgown” and “clouds are crocheted close/threatening”) but when the tension is highest the language becomes terse and plain. The story’s momentum is carried by changes in rhythm – from the more lyrical descriptive sections to those pared down to the basics:
The text is supported by simple, stylish, irregularly interspersed, black and white illustrations – a lizard, tire tracks, patterns in the mud.
Now, back to the title. Clearly the women find themselves at a threshold. Do they wait, staying with the car, or do they go? There is no conflict between them, but there are gentle hints of other things amiss – a “black spirit dog … sniffing the Styx”, the pig hunting that destroys the peace, the white policeman who shows no concern about whether the two young indigenous men who set off on foot have made it through (“it’s their/problem if they’re/out there“). These aren’t laboured, but they suggest other thresholds and are there I’m sure for us to notice and consider. For the women
this tiny crack
in our lives
wind and rain strewn
stranded on the limen
where we could
be on both sides of time
like an unfinished arc
of a bridge
until, perhaps, next time …
Do read this novel, if you can, and see what you think.
illus. by Jeanné Brown
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2013
(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)