Last week I reviewed Karenlee Thompson’s short story collection, Flame tip, which was inspired by (if “inspired” is quite the right word here) the horrendous Tasmanian bushfires of 1967. Lisa at ANZLitlovers had also reviewed this book, and in discussion on her post we discussed the apparent dearth of books on a topic so critical in Australian life. I thought the topic warranted a Monday Musings. Maybe readers here will come up with some more titles that we haven’t thought of!
In 2015, researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Grace Moore wrote an article for The Conversation titled “Bushfires are burning bright in Australian letters and life”. She starts by noting that
Historically, bushfires have played an important role in Australian literature, adding a touch of exoticism in fiction written for readers back in Europe, while also offering insights into the dangers faced by settler communities.
She says that novelists and short story writers from as early as the 1850s referred to fires, often using them as “a melodramatic device to resolve romance plots.” A “heroic rescue from swirling flames (themselves an outlet for the smouldering passions of the protagonists)” would be used to bring together “characters whose marriage would have been considered unsuitable ‘back home’ on the other side of the world.” She names Ellen Clacy as one such writer – though her best known book, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852–1853, is a non-fiction account of the goldfields. I couldn’t find an example online of the sort of story Moore describes.
However, by the 1880s, she writes, “as settlers became better acquainted with the devastation that fire could cause in the outback, bushfire narratives became bleaker and more menacing”. Instead of settlers successfully defending their homes, stories started to describe “suicides, traumatic flashbacks and apocalyptic visions” (like J.S. Borlase’s Twelve miles broad, 1885) or “devastating environmental impact” (such as H. Hudson’s story, The phantom herd, 1907).
In another article Moore is quoted as saying, that in the 20th century fire became “increasingly tied to the nation and resistance”. When fire threatens people’s property, or towns or lives, she said, “it is like a micro war on Australian soil, one that acts as a call to arms for members of the community to fight for their own and their neighbours’ safety”.
Moore had (or has), in fact, been researching fires for some time, and was involved, back in 2013, in a two-day conference held by the Centre, called “Fire stories”. One of the papers was by John Schauble titled “Lost in the flames? The missing great Australian bushfire novel”. The abstract for the paper says:
Bushfire might have been expected to produce a great Australian storyteller, but curiously it has not. While this quintessentially Australian disaster looms large in the popular imagination, bushfires are largely absent from the nation’s fictional narrative. Fire finds expression in the visual arts, poetry and particularly in children’s literature, but novels and even short fiction in which bushfire is central to the narrative are a rarity. Even cataclysmic events such as Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday – that triggered a flurry of other literary activity – have largely failed to ignite the imagination of fiction writers. Fiction has largely been eclipsed by factual accounts, while other forms of literary expression of fire have flourished. A strong tradition of juvenile literature has not translated into adult genres.
Interesting, eh? Why is this?
Now, I hadn’t heard of Schauble before – he’s a CFA volunteer advisor to Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner – but he’s been interested in this topic for sometime. Back in 2002, he wrote an article for The Age on our relationship to bushfires, and said something similar to what he said in 2013:
Despite the great tragedies of fire in the Australian bush, just a handful of novels use bushfire as the central theme. A few poignant short stories – Henry Lawson’s The Fire at Ross’s Farm, John Morrison’s The Children, and Robert Drewe’s Radiant Heat – are noteworthy, along with the occasional poem.
Curiously, bushfires have been seen as been as more suitably the stuff of children’s literature. A succession of well-known children’s authors – Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele, Mavis Thorpe Clarke, Alan Aldous and Roger Vaughan-Carr – have used bushfire as the theme of at least one work.
My point is that it is into this environment that Karenlee Thompson’s collection has been released. I can point to other recent books I’ve read which mention fire – including Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review), Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point (my review), Peter Temple’s Truth (my review), and Jane Rawson’s dystopian novel A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review). None of these revolve around fire, but in a couple fire is significant.
Anchor Point is one of these, containing a major fire partway through the novel. It starts:
Laura looked where he pointed. A line of crimson flames was rising over the crest of a distant hill. Burning storeys high, licking the sky, starving. More than spot fires, the land was alight.
This is followed by several pages of terror. Then, when it’s over:
How depressing it was to live for months in a singular palette: grey, charcoal, black. It was strange to consider what had gone up in smoke and what had survived. There seemed no logic to it …
And fire comes to the city at the end – because Anchor Point is, among other things, a cli-fi novel.
So, things are changing. Just this year, Eliza Henry-Jones published her second novel Ache (see Lisa’s review). This novel’s subject matter is the impact of bushfire on individuals and communities. Lisa tells us that Henry-Jones wrote her Honours thesis on “the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction”. Lisa has reviewed a couple of other books in which fires feature significantly: Roger McDonald’s 1996 book about an arsonist, The Slap (Lisa’s review), Amanda Lohrey’s 2009 novella Vertigo (Lisa’s review), and Lexi Landsman’s 2016 novel The ties that bind (Lisa’s review).
Things, in other words, seem to be changing. I wonder why now? We have always had devastating fires in this country, but is climate change increasing their frequency and therefore bringing the issue once again to the fore? I haven’t read these recent novels, so I can’t really comment on what approach they are taking to exploring fires in Australia. Are they focusing, for example, on grief and trauma, or community and nationhood, or environmental politics and climate change? Or, is there no observable trend in this contemporary writing?
Do you have any thoughts on this topic? If you’re not Australian, do you have any comments about your country’s literature relating to – hmm – disasters that are common to your shores?