Nigel Featherstone, The beach volcano (Review)
Back in 2010, Featherstone spent a month, on a writer’s retreat, at Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s in Cataract Gorge, Launceston. He writes on his blog that he left Launceston with sketches for three novellas. The beach volcano is the last of these, the other two being Fall on me (my review) and I’m ready now (my review). Before I talk about the novella, though, I must compliment Blemish Books on the production of these three books. They are gorgeous – they have appealing, stylish cover designs; they are a perfect size, fall open easily and have lovely, clear print; and together they look like a set. Well done Blemish, I say.
Now, to the book itself. Featherstone has appeared a few times on this blog, via my reviews of the first two novellas, a guest post in 2012, and a five-part interview that I ran over the summer of 2012-2013 when the magazine it was destined for, Wet Ink, folded. Through all of these, one particular idea or theme has been consistent – and it is, as he formally stated in his guest post, that “family is the guts of the contemporary Australian story”. He mentioned several writers, such as Kate Grenville, Craig Silvey and Gillian Mears, for whom this is clearly true, and then turned to his own work:
My main characters are usually men and women (always a good start!) who have children, who want to be parents, who struggle to cope, who feel the pressure of internal and external expectation, who fail and fall into a heap but pat themselves down and have another crack at it.
And so, Fall on me centres on father and teenage son, Lou and Luke, while I’m ready now is about a fifty-something mother and thirty-year old son. In The beach volcano, we’ve moved on again in age. The father here is 80 years old, and the son 44. I’m not sure whether this age progression drove the order in which the books have been published, but it does have a certain neatness. Luke, the teenager in the first book, is pretty wise for his age but he is still a young man sorting out his identity and his separation from his father. Thirty-year-old Gordon, on the other hand, is confronting turning 30 and, not comfortable with what this implies, embarks on a risky “Year of living ridiculously”. This brings us to 44-year-old Canning (aka successful rock musician Mick Dark) who has returned home for the first time since he was 17 to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. He has come primarily because he wants to discover the “full” truth about a story told to him by his aunt, the estranged sister of his father. I should add here, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that the first two books don’t focus solely on the son, whereas The beach volcano is very definitely Canning’s story.
The thing about Featherstone’s books – at least these three – is that there’s potential in each for high drama, or, to put it more crudely, for violence and/or death. But, Featherstone is not a writer of crime or thrillers. He’s interested in family and human relationships, and so, while dramatic things happen, the drama never takes over the story. In The beach volcano, terrible things involving abuse of boys by men have happened before the novel starts. They resulted in family secrets to do with a false alibi – and who knows what else, we wonder as we read. This is what Canning has come home to discover.
The story is told, first person, through a traditional linear narrative, with flashbacks to fill us in on relevant background. It starts with Canning’s arrival on Friday, late, for the pre-birthday dinner for the immediate family, and continues to the end of the weekend when all has been revealed, to Canning at least, and he is able to make some decisions about where to from here. Throughout the weekend, Canning has one-on-one conversations with different members of his family, his parents, his two older sisters, a brother-in-law, and a nephew. We to-and-fro between love and hate, welcome and aggression, as this family tries to keep conflict at bay, while threatened by a secret that they refuse to openly confront. Family secrets, gotta love them! But, Canning wants truthful relationships with his family now:
I’d come to Sydney to tell the truth, but it was important to be selective about the truth, and to have good timing in the telling, to be cautious. Because the truth, I thought, was a disturbance. The truth took things apart and put them back together in a different but better shape. But what exactly was a better shape?
This is the question Canning needs to answer, and is why he bides his time. He needs (and wants) the truth to be a positive force, not a destructive or simply life-sustaining one.
Featherstone’s language is clear and evocative, with lovely descriptions of coastal Sydney and realistic dialogue. Canning’s voice feels genuine, if a little inclined at times to over-explain. The “beach volcano” of the title works on both the literal level as an activity that Canning and his father share, and that he then wants to pass onto to his newly-met nephew, and as a metaphor for simmering tensions that threaten to erupt. You’ll have to read the book though if you want to know what erupts and how. It is, in its measured way, quite the page-turner.
In a sense, this is a reworking of the prodigal son story, except that in this version the son returns as a success and is, perhaps, the one who extends the greatest generosity. Like the original, it is about love and acceptance, but has the added theme – one that Featherstone explores in the three novellas – of the need to face the past before you can truly progress into your future.
The beach volcano makes a fitting conclusion to Featherstone’s novella set. I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent with his unique but real families and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.
The beach volcano
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2014
(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)