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”.
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.
Ash 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”.