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Alice Robinson, Anchor point (Review)

August 30, 2015

Alice Robinson, Anchor PointI love it when the book I’m reading picks up ideas explored in my previous book. Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor point is, in reality, far removed from Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono (my review), but the first line of Henshaw’s book – “There are times in your life when something happens after which you are never the same” – could have been Robinson’s first line. Her focus is more personal than Henshaw’s audacious broad sweep, but the point is still made with punch.

Another aspect of this novel that popped out for me is its rural focus. Rural romance is becoming popular here, but not much of our literary fiction focuses on the rural – on farm life, specifically, I mean, not the bush or outback. In this regard, it reminded me a little of Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review), though they are different books in terms of what drives them.

Have I intrigued you? I hope so, but it would probably help if I now told you a bit about it, rather than the books it reminded me of! The novel starts with a small family on a farm – ten-year-old Laura, five-year-old Vik, their artist-potter mother Kath, and farmer father Bruce. It’s clear there are tensions between the parents, and early in the novel Kath disappears. Interestingly, White’s novel also has a disappearance. Anyhow, young Laura, in a state of anger and shock, makes, as the book’s promos say, “an impulsive decision that will haunt her for decades”. Nonetheless, she fills the gap left – she mothers Vik, takes on the domestic duties, and helps her father on the farm. Robinson conveys beautifully the impact of on her – her pride in helping out, her exhaustion and loneliness, and her realisation of what she is missing. Her childhood, like that of a character in Henshaw’s The snow kimono, was “wrenched” from her. Late in the novel Laura reflects on “what she had lost, what she had cost herself”.

The novel is told third person, in a linear structure. It is divided into parts identified by dates: 1984, 1997, 2008 and 2018. Such a span could suggest saga, but this is a quieter work. It has its dramas, but the tone is not dramatic, which conveys a sense that this is life. Life, in other words, comes with highs and lows, and you just have to get on with it. So we follow the family as Vik grows up and leaves home for university, and as Laura eventually leaves too, at the suggestion of her father. There is always, though, the pull of the farm for Laura – and she does return.

Besides the family drama and the resulting narrative arc to do with Kath’s disappearance, the book is also concerned with farming and the land. Bruce and Laura struggle against drought, bushfires and land degradation to keep the farm going. Climate change hangs over this novel. By 2018 Laura has given up the struggle to regenerate the farm: “the climate had long stopped being something she understood”. This little jump into the future is surely a message from the author, and gives the book a foot in the cli-fi genre.

The other important land issue for farmers – indigenous people and their relationship with the land – is also a thread, introduced early on via Laura’s school friend, the indigenous boy Joseph. This issue is not laboured but bubbles along underneath, coming to the surface in 2018 when Joseph reappears as a man asking for occasional access to the farm for his people. Laura is taken aback:

The land belonged to her and Vik. She thought how mixed up they all were. There was what they believed and what they did, the stories they told. So many truths contained in skin, concentric rings. Laura imagined herself a log, sawn open. How many layers.

She remembers Joseph’s help in the past, and recollects the canoe tree on the property. “‘Course'”, she says, “You can use the place any time you like”.

Like White, for whom this issue is more central, Robinson offers no longterm resolution, but it’s positive to see non-indigenous authors addressing it. (As an aside, I can’t help but think Robinson’s naming one of the farms in the area, the Jolley farm, is a little tribute to Elizabeth Jolley.)

Robinson introduces another contemporary concern, Alzheimer’s. It works well as a plot device, but she does push it a little far. Not unbelievably so, but enough to weigh the novel down a little with issues. On the other hand, it could also work as a metaphor for the way we “forget” what we’ve done and are doing to indigenous people, and to the land.

I enjoyed Robinson’s prose. Here for example is a description of time passing:

The months broke across the year in alternating tasks: clearing, fencing, cutting wood.

And here is a description of the house, when Laura returns after a time away:

The house looked long abandoned, falling into the dry earth. Paint worn away by weather. Verandah sagging. Foundations shifted like rheumatic joints, as though it hurt the wooden skeleton to stay still.

The language, as you can see, is generally spare – sentences tend to be short, and not a lot of time is wasted in long descriptions, just as Laura herself has little time for anything but work.

Overall Anchor point is a tight, well conceived novel. The title, meaning “a safe place”, can be read in multiple ways. Laura does find some “safety” or redemption, but it’s not a simple or easy one for her, and the land itself is far from safe. In the end, it’s all about choices, and, as Laura learns, our choices can create ripples that last long after they’re made. Best, really, to make good choices first off. I’m not sure we’ve learnt that lesson yet.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the novel.

awwchallenge2015Alice Robinson
Anchor point
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2015
263pp.
ISBN: 9781922213617

(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2015 9:36 am

    Thanks for the mention, Sue:)
    I met Alice Robinson, at the Bendigo Writers Festival! She was in a panel along with Jane Rawson and others, talking about what is being called Cli-Fi as a sub-genre of Science Fiction, but I don’t think Alice’s book can be pigeonholed in that way. The scope of her novel into the next decade is an acknowledgement of what’s happening rather than a fantasy. And the way she does it seems alarmingly real. I think she’s a writer of enormous potential, her characterisation is really good, IMO.

    • August 30, 2015 10:33 am

      Agree Lisa, thanks for your comments and sharing your Bendigo Festival experience … I see cli-fi as not so much a sub-genre of Sci-Fi as something more lateral. I see Sci-Fi and Fantasy as different beasts. Sci-Fi can I think be more realistic. I like the term Speculative Fiction. I think it’s good that books like Robinson’s explore (or speculate on) the issue in a very real world. I’d love to have heard that discussion. (In addition of course to those that push more into the unknown but likely or probable or even just possible future.)

      • August 30, 2015 11:00 am

        Yes, that’s a better term, SpecFic, and yes, more lateral – an offshoot of equal weight:)
        I haven’t read Clade yet, I borrowed it from the library but I had to send it back before I had a chance to read it. I guess it’s very popular.

        • August 30, 2015 1:48 pm

          No I haven’t either. I’d read it if it came my way for some reason but right now it’s not really on my priority list.

  2. August 30, 2015 4:02 pm

    This was one of the best reviews I have read so far of Alice Robinson’s cli-fi novel and other posts to the contrary, the author herself refers to the novel as a cli fi novel in two opeds she wrote in the Australian press. In an oped in February, she wrote under the headline of ‘Highlighting the Mistakes we are Making’: On the Uses of Climate Change Fiction” — ”…I wondered whether I could somehow work with the skills I already had, feeling my way into a relationship between narrative and environment, as many makers and creators currently are. So many, in fact, that there exists a burgeoning field of study for the practice: ecocriticism, and now a literary genre: cli-fi (climate-fiction)…..

    …”I wanted to write a book that would contribute to what Dan Bloom – credited with coining the term ‘cli-fi’ – imagines when he says, ‘I am entirely focused on creating a platform for others to use cli-fi to change the world.’ Cli-fi is an evolving and potentially expansive genre, but one of its fundamental functions, as I see it, is to process the cultural distress that is inevitable under the circumstances. Cli-fi narratives, predominantly apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic but not necessarily so, reflect, portray and perhaps even safely contain our collective fears and anxieties, particularly regarding our chances for long-term survival. Too-little lauded Australian writer George Turner’s The Sea and Summer is a favourite cli-fi novel of both Bloom’s and mine, but other titles such as Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and, in my humble opinion, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, among others, powerfully explore, in ways more touching and profound than any scientific document, just how society might look and feel and function in a climatically altered world. In this sense, cli-fi novels offer a way of highlighting the mistakes we are making, preparing us for what will come next.”

    So there, my friends, Alice herself calls her book a cli fi novel. Ask her. It’s cli-fi.

    You might ask James Bradley who just the other day at the MWF15 on a panel about cli fi literature said in public “I don’t think cli fi is a terribly useful term.” This is the second time this Australian ostrich with his head in the Australian sand has publicly slammed cli fi, presumbly because he is a cult member of the sci fi cult and cannot get his head around anything that deviates from his sci fi mantra. In the SMH he mocked cli fi as “that unlovewly shorthand for climate fiction,” forgetting that sci fi term itself was once mocked when it first appeared in the 1920s, Ask Hugo Gernsback, James. So while Alice says her novel is cli fi, a bunch of you here refuse to accept what she herself says. Are you also living with your heads buried in the sand. Australia is not a provincial country any more, you are part of the global community now and it’s time to accept this: cli fi is here to stay, and Alice herself says it. How can you say otherwise?

    • August 30, 2015 5:51 pm

      Hi Dan. Took me a while to find this. Usually comments from new people go into moderation but for some reason WordPress’s Akismet function put you in Spam. If you hadn’t made the tweet about not censoring you I probably wouldn’t have found you as I rarely look in spam.

      Anyhow, thanks so much for your positive comments on my review. However, I think you have misunderstood me regarding the cli fi issue. I have tagged my review cli fi (you can see it at the top of the post) and I said her discussion of climate issues “gives the book a foot in the cli fi genre”. I think you’ve misunderstood the comment section. A commenter said she didn’t think the book could be pigeonholed, but didn’t necessarily say it wasn’t cli fi. I responded further on that it’s good to see “books like Robinson’s explore (or speculate on) the issue in a very real world”. I have tagged a few of my reviews with “cli fi” which you can see if you click on that tag at the top of the post

      As for what Alice Robinson herself says, I must say that I don’t read reviews or what authors say if I can possibly help it before I read books and write my own review. I don’t believe that reviewers HAVE to agree with what the author says – we need to read and comment on the book as we see it – but in this case I certainly see climate as being one of the themes of the novel and therefore see the novel as contributing to the cli fi/climate fiction genre.

  3. August 30, 2015 5:04 pm

    Whispergums SUE: ”I don’t think Alice’s book can be pigeonholed in that way.” But Alice herself calls it #clifi. Wake up Sue!

  4. August 30, 2015 5:55 pm

    And I also love the whispering gums photo and explanation of the Hornsby song. I graduated HS in USA in 1967. I cannot even remember IF we even had a school song. I smoked a lot of dope then but…I never inhaled, mind you. SMILE

    • August 30, 2015 10:18 pm

      Thanks Dan … very glad to hear you didn’t inhale. You must have gone to school with Bill!

      I’m not sure I would have remembered my school song if it had been the typical rah-rah type of song.

  5. August 30, 2015 5:58 pm

    Yes, you did answer my questions very well re ”I have tagged my review cli fi (you can see it at the top of the post) and I said her discussion of climate issues “gives the book a foot in the cli fi genre”. AND YES, i loved that you wrote that in the review and yes it was the comments section that threw me for a loop. You will have to excuse this old man with one foot in the grave in Taiwan, but with James Bradley making very critical anti CLI FI comments in public at the MWF and tweeting them even on Twitter, I am fighting a war agaisnt people like Bradley. but it’s a gentle soft war and I fully respect his right to hate cli fi if that is his chosen career path. But i do wish he would wake up and stop dissing cli fi. He foregets that people dissed his beloved sci fi genre when it was first born in 1920s. SO there. I am a bit of hot head, sorry. — DAN

    • August 30, 2015 10:12 pm

      Thanks Dan … I’m happy to hear from hot heads who are passionate about what they believe in and can respond like this. I don’t really follow Bradley so am not up with what you are talking about. I know who he is of course, and have heard him interviewed at times, but haven’t heard him on this issue. As anywhere, I think you’ll find a breadth of opinion here in Australia.

  6. August 30, 2015 6:02 pm

    I am with you now all on this. Thanks for your patience. You know i coined and created the cli fi term and have been doing the PR for it 24/7 every day without a vacation since 2012 and I love my “work” but I get carried away sometimes since i hate to see people bash cli fi without find out what it is first. BUT as you said ….”I don’t believe that reviewers HAVE to agree with what the author says – we need to read and comment on the book as we see it ”…I AGREE 100 percent. and reviewers DO NOT even have to call the book a genre that author calls it, everyonehas a right to call things as they seem em. I am really an open minded person. I just wish everyone would see things MY WAY. haha. cheers, DAN

    • August 30, 2015 10:16 pm

      Well, thanks for agreeing even with that statement about reviewing Dan. I didn’t know until I did a little search this evening that you’d coined the term, but it helps me understand your passion for the term and what it encompasses.

      Some people like categories, some don’t. I think they are useful as long as we’re not slavish about them. They help us find info we’re looking for and they also can provide context.

  7. annabelsmith permalink
    August 31, 2015 1:48 pm

    The prose looks absolutely beautiful in this. And I’m interested in the climate change element. But I’m terribly turned off by the farm setting. Perhaps because I grew up on a farm!

    • August 31, 2015 3:25 pm

      Yes, there’s some lovely prose here. I enjoyed the writing. And, as Lisa says in her comment but, in trying to keep my review tight I didn’t go into this area, her characterisation is good too. That’s fascinating being turned off by the farm element. Many of us like to read other perspectives of things we know. But, we’re not all the same are we!!

  8. September 3, 2015 4:12 am

    But sometimes you don’t know for sure which is the good choice until after it has been made. I love when books bump up against each other. This sounds like a really good debut. I suspect it will be interesting to see how the author develops.

    • September 3, 2015 8:12 am

      No, that’s the trouble isn’t it! Stefanie? Choices that seemed good in the past have often turned out not to be so, but it does seem that some choices are pretty obvious but aren’t made for political reasons. They’re the most worrying ones.

Trackbacks

  1. August 2015 Roundup: Diversity | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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