Rodney Hall, A stolen season (#BookReview)

Rodney Hall, A stolen seasonRodney Hall is one of those Australian authors who deserves more attention than he seems to get. Consequently, I’m thrilled to at last include him in my blog, with his latest novel A stolen season. I was introduced to Hall back in the late 1980s when my reading group read his surprising novel, Just relations, and I’ve also read another surprising novel by him, The day we had Hitler home. Hall is good at surprising, because A stolen season isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill, either, in terms of its characters and set-up.

It’s a tricksy book comprising three different, more-or-less alternating, story-lines. The chapters go like this: Adam and Bridget, Marianna, Adam and Bridget, John Philip, Adam and Bridget, Marianna, Adam and Bridget. Adam and Bridget, then, form the driving story, and there seems to be no connection between the three sets of characters for a very, very long time. Indeed, by the middle story, John Philip, the only literal connection is a minor character from the first Adam-and-Bridget chapter appearing as a rather minor character in this one. Later, a similarly loose, not-exactly-direct, connection occurs between Adam and Marianna. What gives, we wonder? Who are Marianna and John Philip? Why are we also reading about them? And, will they all ever actually meet, as we expect in novels like this? Well, all I’ll say is that Hall does not, as is probably his wont, do the expected. No, I’ll say more in fact: if we focus our energies on worrying about this structural plot issue, we risk missing what’s important, which is the overarching idea that gradually reveals itself, an idea relating to money and power, and to the way they can not only deceive but actively generate inhumane/anti-human values.

The main story, Adam and Bridget’s, centres on soldier Adam. He returns from fighting with the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq so severely damaged that he can only live, get around, by means of an exoskeleton (the “Contraption”) that is activated and controlled by his brain, something which Hall explains at the end is not complete science fiction. Adam and Bridget’s story is surprising from the beginning, because, while we realise that this injured soldier, Adam, whom we’ve just met, has a wife, we don’t realise, until he arrives home, that the marriage was essentially over by the time he’d gone to war. This was not because they hated each other but because they’d married on a whim – “it seemed a fun thing to do at the time, but they were just kids and kidding” – and the marriage had run its course. Unfortunately for Bridget, she had never got around to legally leaving Adam after he had physically left her to go to war, because it had never seemed necessary. Now what was she to do?

Adam and Bridget’s story is darkly humorous, but also deeply moving, not least because Hall imbues them with a humanity that we can relate to and recognise. They embody the sorts of inner conflicts anyone would experience in a situation like this – Adam, desiring his wife but incapable of achieving what he most wants, wants, genuinely, generously, to set her free, and Bridget, feeling trapped but empathetic, increasingly tender, wants to do the right thing by this decent strong man. Hall writes their story – writes all of the stories in fact – from the individual characters’ third person points of view. Not only does this make for engrossing reading, but it reveals Hall to be a writer who knows, fundamentally, what makes us human.

Meanwhile, Marianna, a German-born Australian, is on the run in Belize after discovering that her husband had seriously deceived her and was implicated in the greed that underpinned what we Australians call the GFC. While Adam and Bridget’s story is the most personal one, hers is the more mysterious, mystical one. Why is she in Belize, and what does she want with the Mayan pyramid? It’s all to do with numbers, mathematics, and end-of-the world predictions. Hers is the hardest story to pin down, because of its more mystical quest. She sees the temple:

… the structural puzzle of steps and platforms on all sides forming a pyramid crowned by a little room with a single doorway–like the lonely eye of the soul.

Marianna gets it. With neither front nor back, nor left nor right, the geometry is inward looking.

And then there’s John Philip, 70-something, indolent and mega wealthy from family money, who suddenly finds himself in possession of a strange bequest – a long-lost book of “the” artist Turner’s erotic sketches of female pudenda. What he does with these is to thumb his nose at his family in a stylish but shockingly public way while, at the same time, making a statement about art. His is the central or peak story to and from which the other chapters formally if not narratively move. It is satiric, rather than tragic, and has a guffaw-producing, conversation-ending last line, but, in placing him at the centre of his story, Hall is surely presenting his manifesto on the meaning and role of art. John Philip realises:

‘The thing about art’–he finds words for the revelation taking shape in his mind–is that art can be a gift. It’s for whoever sees what it is. That’s what makes it art in the first place.’ He probes deeper. ‘I suppose that also makes it political. I mean, if you can’t stop it speaking the truth.’

Back to Adam and Bridget. What is so special about their story is the way Hall weaves the political into the personal so closely that they are almost indistinguishable. It is here that the “cost” of war is plain to see; it is here that the “money” theme – the idea that “the accountants” are at “the wheel” – is played out to its bitter end; and yet, it is also here that people’s ability to be quietly heroic in the only important way, in our treatment of each other, is laid bare. It’s an astonishing novel about some specific issues of our time, namely the Iraq War and the GFC, and about those wider questions concerning being human and the meaning of art.

Now, however, I’m kicking myself, because this book deserves a wider audience than I’ve seen it getting – and, unfortunately, its turn came up on my reading pile at the slowest time of year for blog reading. It’s a time when readers might peruse various “best-of” lists, but, at least as I’ve observed in previous years, pay less attention to more serious posts. This is a real shame, because both Rodney Hall and this, his latest book, deserve some real attention. It’s a book that will pay the reader who likes to take time to ponder in spades.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

Rodney Hall
A stolen season
Sydney: Picador, 2018
ISBN: 9781760555443

(Review copy courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

39 thoughts on “Rodney Hall, A stolen season (#BookReview)

  1. I’m so glad that not only did you admire this book, but that your book group found it worthwhile too. I’ve met Rodney Hall, at translation events through AALATRA and also at Woodend, and he’s a wonderful person, very active in the arts community.
    You’re right that he tends not to get enough attention: he won the MF twice, but that was a long time ago…

    • Oh no, my bookgroup didn’t do this one Lisa. Did I imply it did? My bookgroup did do Just relations – that’s probably the confusion.

      I remember he got a bit of airplay around those days, but not enough.

      How nice to have met him. I imagine he would be a nice fellow – given the values he writes about.

      • No, my mistake, I somehow assumed, and clearly got it wrong.
        I love his writing, but also his music. He has directed some performances of very early operas at The Woodend Festival, and they are a joy to see. It’s just magical the way with minimal props and costumes he transforms what is an ordinary old church hall into an opera house where we forget all about where we are and enter into the music and the drama.
        One other form of recognition he has which I didn’t know until I looked it up just now, is that he has an AM.
        I’m not going to make any NY resolutions, but in 2019 I am going to get back to my project of reading all the MF winners since its inception, and Hall’s books are among them:)

  2. I’ve read one Hall, The Last Love Story. It was on the edge of SF as this one may be too, though I think I read the military are developing jet fighters that pilots can control by thinking. Interesting that your experience is that blog readers’ attention drops off over xmas/new year, I’m thinking at last I can sit down and read and write.

    • I think your self-correction is right Bill because it appears that something like what he describes is under development now at the Florey Institute via a stent in the brain – in addition to what you’ve heard of.

      Re attention dropping off, it’s really only for the few days leading up to Christmas. Once our Boxing Day is over – ie Christmas in the US – things do pick up again I’ve found, but posting something right now does risk getting overlooked because most bloggers don’t have time to go back and check posts they’ve missed. Certainly, I expect that once my daughter arrives tomorrow until they all leave on the 27th, my time on blogs will be limited.

      • I’ll add to this: yes, things drop off a little in the pre-Xmas frenzy while there are work parties and shopping to do, but then it bounces back. But even during Xmas, there are plenty of people who are not ‘doing’ Christmas for one or another, (and sometimes not by choice), sometimes people just want a respite from it all, and sometimes it’s people who are so well-organised that they can carry on doing what’s normal right through!
        And then there are booklovers, for whom nothing interferes with reading!

        • Thanks Lisa and Sue. I have to review Tracker in the next couple of days before it disappears from my head, I hope people read it eventually. Lisa, you realise your other comment means you now have to return to Evie Wyld?

        • Oh, oh, oh Lisa. But some book lovers have family over Christmas. No matter how much you love reading you also love catching up with people you may not see a lot, not to mention cook for them?

          But you’re right, it bounces back quickly. I love how readers can’t stay away from litblogs for long! The post Xmas chat can be fun. And as you say blogs are great for people who do have quiet Christmases. I just meant that posts published in these quieter for days may not get the attention the book deserves.

  3. Great review of this book. The structure seems very interesting, As you describe it, I think that I would like it. I tend to be partial to authors experimenting like that.

    I never realized that this was considered a slow time on the blogs. I know that everyone is busy but it seems that a lot of posts are going up.

    • Thanks Brian – yes, I think readers who like books which challenge them to think, and are interested in what writers have to say about the “current condition” would enjoy this one.

      As for slow time, maybe it’s just me, but these few days, and the few days over American Thanksgiving, are always noticeably slower on my blog in terms of “hits”.

  4. I’d love to read this! I’m always noting Canadian authors that never seem to get attention outside the country and I would be very pleased to be introduced to an Australian counterpart.

    Sadly, there is only Hall’s nonfiction Journey Through Australia available in the library system in ALL of Nova Scotia. And (for my Kindle content) and are no better. 😦

    But thank you for a lovely review – that I read in its entirety.

    • Wow, Debbie, though may have been interested. What a shame you can’t get him through Amazon. All to do with publishers rights I believe.

      I read a great collection of short stories by a young Canadian recently, but really haven’t read as much as I did for a while there.

  5. Gosh, Bill, you are quick off the mark! I should have qualified things: my MF first editions collection stopped when publishers stopped doing hardbacks for most books. I have some of the more recent winners in paperback because I bought them anyway, but they’re not part of my first editions collection.

    (This is what saves me from having to read The Hand That Signed the Paper. I have only a paperback copy!)

  6. Oh Sue, I didn’t mean that booklovers don’t see family or cook for them. I do that every year – twice in fact – since we do Xmas Day on Xmas Day and then again on Boxing Day, and last year I did it three times because a dear friend whose family is in the US, had to fly there for what was thought to be her mother’s last lucid Christmas. She was so upset about missing *our* Christmas-on-Boxing-Day that I did a reprise when she came back home, just for her!
    But I still read books on all these days, and (pause to check my archive) I posted 8 reviews between Dec 20 and 31, plus some other bits and pieces as well.
    But I will say that we have never done the kind of extravaganza that some other people do, requiring a massive effort. We went to one of those at my BIL’s one year, and there was a ginormous crowd of people. I would have had to give up Life for a week to achieve that…

    • Thanks Lisa. Yes, that’s what I meant. You can be a book lover but things can stop you reading. I will barely read between now and 28 or 29 December. I will read of course but not much. For a start there’ll be a baby because woo hoo they’ve decided to come up! Picked up the hire car seat today so we ready and waiting for the arrival.

      • Oh, that’s lovely, that will make it a very special Christmas indeed! No doubt you have bought The Very First Book and you can take a photo of Grandma reading it under the tree!!

    • BTW the reason I’m commenting and not reading now is that. We are doing errands and while Mr Gums goes into hardware shops I’m in the car catching up on blogs! Of course I could have brought my book with me 😄

      • You have a bigger family than mine to buy for. My gardening friends like Bunnings vouchers better than anything else, and a quick trip to Crabtree & Evelyn plus setting up some money transfers takes care of most of the presents. It still looks quite presentable under the tree (which the little girls next door decorated for me). I’ve bought some bits and pieces during the year, the pudding was made on Cup Day and all I have to do now is collect some orders on Christmas Eve and that’s it!

      • I just finished this book and my, oh my—such wonderful characterisation and mighty themes. He makes the reader work but the reading is all the better for it. The book is dense and the prose is beautiful. What a master! Your review summarises it very well, by the way. There’s so much to discuss and I can’t wait to interview him at Perth Festival!

  7. Such a stunningly moving book. Thanks again WG for your review. I read it over Christmas staying with friends for three days in Leura – amid moments of walks to the edge of the plateau, playing games (actually avoiding them in order to keep reading) and so forth. Reminded reading your New Year’s Day review that I had not thanked you!

    • Oh thanks Jim. You don’t have to thank me but I do love to hear when someone has followed up on a book I’ve reviewed – particularly if they end up loving it (but even if they don’t!) I’m wondering if it will be a Miles Franklin contender next year.

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