This weekend I went to the National Museum of Australia’s current visiting exhibition, A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum. The promo describes it thus: “Explore the history of humanity — how we have shaped the world, and how the world has shaped us — in this major exhibition. Witness compelling stories expressed through a beautiful collection of artefacts from across the globe.” It’s a beautiful, and, to be clichéd, thought-provoking exhibition. I expect I’ll visit it again.
The texts associated with the objects varied in the sorts of information they conveyed, depending of course, on the sort of object, and its purpose and meaning. I was particularly interested in those where the object has thrown light on our understanding of people’s lives and social structures. For example, the Egyptian funerary stela is inscribed in three scripts enabling it to be read by “multiple levels of Egyptian society”. That says something about the wish to communicate to all, doesn’t it? Another point the exhibition curators make is that objects have their own biography which may depart from their original role or purpose. They exemplify this by the very first object: an Egyptian mummy FOR x but when it was x-rayed was discovered to contain a male. Why the woman was replaced by a man at some time in the object’s history is a matter of conjecture, though they have some ideas.
Anyhow, all this made me think about novels which focus on an object – and I thought it would be a fun topic for a Monday Musings. It turned out not to be easy – though I suspect it would be easier if I decided to include crime fiction! Objects – weapons, serial killer trophies, and so on, aren’t hard to find there! But literary fiction? Hmm… However, here goes … and of course I’ve made it harder for myself because I am going to focus on Australian novels (listed in alphabetical order by author)
Geraldine Brooks’ People of the book: I read this book before I started blogging. It’s not my favourite Brooks’ novel but it does have an intriguing premise which matches the themes of the exhibition because in this novel Brooks tracks the history of the book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, the people who have owned and handled it through history, its impact on their lives and on history. Parallel to this story is a contemporary thread about the conservator whose job is to prepare the book for exhibition and who is anxious to retain (i.e. not restore away) its history. (I must say though that I’m with the readers who found conservator Hanna’s story the problematic part of this otherwise good read.)
Peter Carey’s The chemistry of tears (my review): This was the first book that popped into my head, the one, in fact, that inspired me to write this post. It’s hard to forget the father travelling to Germany to have an automaton made for his ailing son, and the grieving museum conservator given the project of reconstructing it a century later. (I hadn’t thought until now of the loose similarity with Brooks’ book!). The object plays multiple roles: it represents what a father will do for love of a child; it plays a role in the resolution of grief; and, it contains a clever little mystery/irony/message within itself.
Gary Crew’s Strange objects: I haven’t read this novel, a young adult crime novel which won a few awards including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 1991, I but decided to include it because its title, for a start, is a perfect fit. Here is the Wikipedia article‘s description of the book: “Using the framing device of a collection of papers made by a missing boy, Steven Messenger, it is a mystery story that explores the construction of history. When Steven discovers relics from the wreck of the Batavia while on a school camp, (a diary and a mummified hand with a gold ring on it, the two inside an iron pot), he investigates the media frenzy surrounding them …” Wikipedia states that this book was a response to Australia’s bicentenary which, as we Aussies know, brought about quite a revival of interest in exploring Australian history.
Some other books in which objects feature, but not as strongly as those above, are Sarah Kanake’s Sing fox to me (my review) in which a Tasmanian Tiger pelt plays a major role in the way various characters manage grief, take agency, accommodate wildness, and Marcus Zusak’s The book thief (my review) in which books in general, starting with The gravedigger’s handbook, and words, in particular, become the focus of our young protagonist’s attempt to understand the Nazi-controlled world she finds herself in. Murray Bail’s The pages (my review) is also framed by an object, by a dead man’s papers (pages) containing his “philosophy”. In fact, when I started thinking about fiction which focuses on objects, the most common object turned out to be books or papers! Not really surprising, eh? But, to conclude my little perfunctory survey, I’ll go for something very different, a bridge. It features in one of my favourite Kate Grenville books, The idea of perfection. It’s at the centre of conflict in a country town, but it also becomes the means of bringing two lonely people together. (And it features on the cover of my edition!)
Have you read any books in which an object is central to the story and the meaning, in which it plays some role in explaining or resolving people’s feelings and lives? I’d love to hear about them – Aussie or non-Aussie of course.
Or, would you like to answer the question our ABC RN asked listeners in a competition related to the exhibition: What object has shaped your history — and why?