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Romy Ash, The basin (Review)

August 9, 2013

Romy Ash has made quite a splash with her debut novel, Floundering. It was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others. I  haven’t read it yet, but I have read a couple of her short stories that have appeared in the Griffth Review, one of which is “The basin”.

Lake Argyle

A tiny section of Lake Argyle

For those who don’t know, the Griffith Review is published quarterly, with each issue focusing on a particular theme. The issue “The basin” appears in is titled “What is Australia” which is rather apposite given my Monday Musings post this week on Writing the Australian landscape. Ash doesn’t identify the “place” in which the story is set, beyond telling us that there’s a dam which is described in a pamphlet as “the biggest inland body of water in Australia”. Well, that gives it away. It is clearly inspired by Lake Argyle in the Kimberley region of northern Australia. The lake – an artificial one created by damming the Ord River – is huge. I’ve never seen a lake (in Australia anyhow) quite like it.

Ash’s story is about Jess who has come to the region with her husband, Max, and their daughter, Frankie. Jess is not happy, something that is physically represented by her increasing weight: “every bit of her wobbled”, “Sitting there Jess felt fatter”, “her thighs rubbed together”, and so on. “You were skinny, before”, an old farmer tells her.

Max, however, is happy. “We’ve never done so well”, he tells her. But all is not well in this man-made Eden (there are sly references to “apples”) and not all men are happy. It’s not normal for this “dry country” to have so much water. A farmer tells them:

The most beautiful country you’ve ever seen, gone. Them gums, they’re drowned under there. Ever heard a gum drown?  They creak. All the animals. It’s not like fire – them animals can’t sense it coming – they was drowned, sure enough. The surface of the water was just insects. Snakes curled and died. They washed up at the sides. It didn’t look like it does now. It was putrid.

Putrid perhaps, but natural is the implication. I have written about the drowning of this landscape before in my post on Mary Durack’s poem “Lament for a drowned country”. The Duracks’ own homestead was drowned to create Lake Argyle.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeAsh uses feminising imagery to tell her story – with many references to the colour “pink” (galahs, inside of mouths, sunrise, hams) and to the “basin” of the title. Water, often a literary device associated with life, is a complex image in Ash’s story. People are told not to swim in the dam because it’s the town water. Jess and Frankie do, but then Jess will only drink bottled water, refusing to drink the town water. Understandably! A different sort of water features in the story’s resolution.

Although Ash doesn’t explore it, she reminds us of indigenous people’s association with the land when she says that “after the flooding the town had been renamed Burrngburrng-nga, an Indigenous name. Every time she heard someone say it they pronounced it differently and quietly, unsure.” Google tells me that it means “The water boiled” in the Wagiman language (from Katherine in the Northern Territory).

This is a story about the costs – personal and environmental – of mankind’s belief in its ability to control nature. It’s about values, and whether making money is enough to sustain happiness. It’s about the unhappiness that can result when people are dislocated from their roots – either because they move or because their place has been changed beyond recognition. Place – it has such a complex relationship with our physical, emotional and/or spiritual well-being, doesn’t it?

It’s not a particularly dramatic story, but it is a quietly effective one that I can see fitting nicely into a volume intended to encourage us to think about “What is Australia”.

Romy Ash
“The basin”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 36, Winter 2012
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2013 3:41 pm

    I liked this story – thanks! What does Floundering speak about? Must look this one up too.

    • August 10, 2013 6:16 pm

      Thanks Catherine … glad you liked it. Floundering is about two boys living with their grandmother because their mother deserts them … but the mother returns. I think water features in it too. I can’t tell you much more though – I’d like to read it.

  2. August 11, 2013 8:14 am

    I’m in the middle of reading Floundering and enjoying it. Romy cuts to the essence of Australia as I know it in so many ways. I love the way she describes eating Twisties, and eating out in quiet, regional Chinese restaurants. I’m biting my nails, worrying about those two boys because she’s drawn the mother’s character so convincingly. I’ll be sure to read this next one, thanks!

    • August 11, 2013 8:48 am

      Oh, thanks for this Susan … Does water play a role in the novel? I have a sense that water is something she thinks about, uses to different purposes.

      • August 11, 2013 9:36 am

        Now I think of it, yes and yes! But I’m going to be mean and let you find that surprise for yourself! 🙂
        On another note, love the new Canturf signs in Canberra (a previous blog of yours).

        • August 11, 2013 11:15 am

          Oh, you are mean … but I applaud you. Glad you like the Canturf signs too … I did notice a new one on my way out to Bungendore last weekend.

  3. August 11, 2013 1:42 pm

    This sounds fascinating. One day I’ll have to rummage through your Griffith Reviews back home…

    • August 11, 2013 3:49 pm

      You will … But a lot are online … Including this story. They usually go online, free access, some months after publication, perhaps after the next edition is published.

  4. August 12, 2013 7:19 pm

    Reblogged this on Sarah St Vincent Welch.

  5. August 13, 2013 3:50 am

    Sounds like a wonderful story. Dams change the landscape so very dramatically it’s a wonder there aren’t more stories about them. Or maybe there are and I just don’t know it?

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