William Lane’s latest novel, The salamanders, is a book that keeps you thinking from beginning to end. As I started it, I was thinking of it as a cross between Julian Davies’ Crow mellow (my review), a satirical novel about a house party for artists and their patrons, and Emily Bitto’s The strays (my review) about an artist colony, focusing particularly on the founding family. A few comparisons could be drawn, but I soon discovered that this is its own book.
I hadn’t heard of this* William Lane before, but The salamanders is his third novel. In a different version, with a different title, it was apparently shortlisted for the Vogel Prize. The book’s author bio also told me that Lane did his doctorate on Christina Stead. So, he’s been about the place – just not the places I’ve been haunting, clearly!
But now to the book. It starts during a beach holiday on the New South Wales coast. There’s the obsessed artist Peregrine, his ex-wife Naomi, their daughter Julia, his sons, David, Arthur, and George, from his previous relationship – and the adopted Rosie. There are also some visitors, including friend Elizabeth and her husband Johnno. The children range in age down from the 14-year-old David. Arthur, aged around 11, has a crush on the slightly older Rosie, and George and Julia form a happy play unit. Lane sets up the idyll – Naomi says they are “enjoying one another’s company far more than when we were married” – and then gradually pulls it apart, exposing past and present cracks. By the end of the first chapter – the book is told in 5 chapters – the idyll has broken, mostly due to Peregrine’s arrogant and self-involved behaviour, and Naomi departs with the two girls. Chapter 2 jumps 15 years or so. Arthur is around 27 years old, and is back at the beach-house living alone. Rosie comes to visit.
The rest of the book focuses primarily on Arthur and Rosie as they circle each other, coming together, separating, all the while trying to come to terms with their lives, their pasts and their desires for the future. Lane doesn’t over-explain, preferring to show not tell, so we are left to guess exactly what had happened on that holiday and just after, which resulted in changes to the family units. All we know is that the fallout has had long-lasting impact and that Rosie is coming from England, to which she’d run away. She refuses to eat with Arthur. This eating behaviour of hers is one of the motifs running through the novel, and represents an inner discordance, despite the refrain that what happened wasn’t their fault.
Other motifs run through the book. One is the indigenous rock art image, in a cliff near the house, of a falling man. It mesmerises Arthur, and represents his emotional state. The other main motif relates of course to salamanders – and various members of the somewhat-related lizard and snake families. These creatures occur both literally and metaphorically. Rosie, in Chapter 2, says to Arthur:
‘Skinks, salamanders, geckos, frill-necked lizards, water dragons,’ laughed Rosie in her burred and husky way, ‘this is the land of the lizard. When I see a lizard, I think of this country. I never realised that its surface is so lizard-like. That’s what I saw from the plane.
This motif is complex, conveying a range of ideas, many of them unsettling:
… Peregrine glittered, and his eyes grew milky. He might be covered in scales, with discreetly expanding gills. With an absolute, self-preserving, inward rush of energy, Elizabeth removed herself from him.
Lizards also represent the antiquity of the continent – “the young lizard … considered them from some million years ago”. And in this, they also represent resilience. “Lizards are tough”, says Rosie, and toughness, the ability to grow and move beyond their youth, is what Rosie and Arthur are working to achieve.
There’s an underlying Gothic sense to the novel which imbues it with an overall eeriness. Peregrine creates strange paintings in caves. There are mysterious shapes or shadows which appear out of the blue – “Something scurried outside the glass. He looked up, but did not catch its form” or “A liquid slithering passed along the glass of the house …” or “Then that scrabbling again. Something ancient was trying to get in”. There’s Arthur and Rosie’s roadtrip into Australia’s interior, and their uncertain relationship with each other. Not blood-related but brought up as brother and sister, they mystify and concern others.
So, where does all this go? I’m not sure it’s a book you can easily comprehend in one reading. The road trip to the interior and Peregrine’s bizarre painting projects in caves within caves suggest some sort of psyche-seeking but it isn’t completely resolved in my mind. Need it be?
Overall, then, it’s one of those mesmerising books that can be read in different ways, making it a little disconcerting. The first chapter felt a little over-written at times and I feared a clichéd story about dysfunctional artists’ colonies, but it then shifted into something more mysterious, less-defined, slippery, something incorporating a broad, abstract story about our relationship to art, place and nature, and a more personal story about identity and family.
According to myth, salamanders are born of and resistant to fire. Rosie says during her road-trip with Arthur that “we’re salamanders – we don’t feel the fire”. And that, in a way, is the point of the novel, surviving the fires that confront us.
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2016
(Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge)
* I allude to the late nineteenth-early twentieth century Utopian of the same name, whose The workingman’s paradise I’ve reviewed.