Sandy Gordon, Leaving Owl Creek (#BookReview)

I do enjoy receiving books from non-profit independent publisher, Finlay Lloyd. Their books are physically distinctive, being longer and narrower than the norm, and they have a stylish, minimalist, design, which makes them lovely to look at and hold. They also appeal content-wise because Finlay Lloyd consciously, it seems to me, publishes books that regardless of form or genre interrogate prevailing values and attitudes, books that contribute to the conversation. Sandy Gordon’s Leaving Owl Creek is another such book.

Sandy Gordon could be included in my late bloomer category, meaning he’s an older first time novelist. A grandfather now, he is, however, not a late bloomer in terms of achievement because, as the book’s front-matter explains, he has had a significant academic and public service career, especially in the areas of intelligence and national security. The notes say that “when he finished his last academic book in 2014, he vowed never to write another footnote – hence the novel”. Lucky us.

Leaving Owl Creek is a dual narrative story, alternating between the first person diary of Nicholas (Nick) MacLean, who has been captured by the Mujahideen in Kashmir, and the third person story of his life which begins on the family property of Owl Creek. It’s not just his story, though, as also at Owl Creek are his sister Lilly, and Richard and Kate Connolly whose family has worked for the MacLeans for generations. The novel takes place over several decades covering the second half of the twentieth century, a time of significant social, cultural and political change. Two fundamental issues of change are introduced in the first chapter, one relating to class and status, and the other to gender, and particularly to masculinity.

However, the novel opens not with this chapter, but with Nick’s diary. He reports playing chess with his main captor, the Mujahid, and their discussing Nick’s western versus the Mujahid’s Islamic values. It is clear that Nick’s survival very likely depends on the Mujahid. This provides the main narrative tension for the novel, but it’s not the main interest, albeit I cared deeply about what might happen to Nick. (Gordon knows whereof he speaks, having written a nonfiction work about the region, India’s rise as an Asian power: Nation, neighborhood, and region.)

What I enjoyed about the novel was its portrayal of those issues I’ve mentioned. Nick and Lilly were born into the squattocracy, Protestant of course. They are privileged – materially, anyhow. In other ways, not so, because the expectations are not only high but they are conservative, which means, for example, that Nick is expected to live up to the traditional idea of manhood, an idea that focuses more on “honour” than on feelings. This does not sit well with Nick who is cut of a more sensitive and artistic cloth. He’s interested in art and poetry, which to his father are “not sound in a man”. Richard, the son of Catholic station workers, is closer to Mr MacLean’s idea of a man. This difference creates another tension in the novel as we watch Nick and Richard (named, ironically, for Richard Wright, but often more pointedly referred to as Dick) grow from boys to men. We do also have their sisters, who are each attracted to the other’s brother, but Leaving Owl Creek is not a cliched family drama. While these sisters’ roles are important to fleshing out the main themes, their relationships do not play out in the standard rural romance way – because, this is not rural romance. It’s a novel written by a man primarily about men.

“man of affairs” to “affairs of men”

So it is this that I’d like to tease out a little more. The second half of the twentieth century, and into the present, has been a difficult time for men. As women have found their place (albeit this has not yet translated into full equality) men have had to work out how their place fits in. For Richard, his Catholicism and working class background mean he starts with a handicap, but he’s a hard worker, a real “man”, and he gets opportunities as a result. He takes them and becomes a confident, successful, and powerful man, a politician in fact, but in the process he manipulates and betrays others, and loses his self. He talks big about a “man of affairs” being a humanist, but in the end, “the affairs of men” comes to encompass for him the ends justifying the means.

Nick, on the other hand, grows up with everything except what he wants most, the freedom to follow his own path. His struggle is great. He is sent to a prestigious boarding school, where his artistic preferences are not supported. On leaving school, he goes to university and gets caught up in the Push (about which I wrote early in this blog), and other leftist intellectual groups. It’s the 60s, and unsettled Nick falls prey to substance abuse. He fails his father’s expectations, and ultimately ends up in India where he finds a place for himself – until his capture. Nick too reflects on what it means to be a man but is less concerned with “manhood” than with what human beings are. In a fraught conversation with some leftist intellectuals, he sees the issue in terms of “moral choice”.

Politics provides the backdrop to the novel, and Gordon presents us with a broad sweep from Richard’s mother’s statement that their family had come out from Ireland for “political” reasons, through various wars, to our contemporary concerns with Indigenous dispossession and the increasing conflict between Eastern and Western values. But, threaded through this historical expanse is a recurring issue, the role of men, and the importance of “duty” and “honour”. Nick’s refusal of his Vietnam War call-up is the last straw for his father, and he is disinherited. From his father’s point of view:

‘If your country says it needs you … that has to be good enough. Beyond that it’s a question of honour …’

In the closing pages of the novel, Nick, still a captive of the Mujahideen, returns to these ideas:

The Mujahid. The thing is, he likes me, perhaps even loves me. Why then is it not enough? Why is it never enough?

Because duty, as he sees it, trumps liking, even love. Duty, honour, loyalty, death – these four ride side by side over the blistered landscape and will do so for as long as we humans occupy the planet.

Leaving Owl Creek is a highly readable and deeply thoughtful novel that tackles some complex issues, intelligently and generously. We feel for each of the characters at different points in their lives. We see the pressures they face – social, political, psychological – and we are encouraged to understand why they are who they are, and, beyond that, to consider how on earth we might all be better. Like Lisa, I recommend this book.

Sandy Gordon
Leaving Owl Creek
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2021
ISBN: 9780994516565

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

14 thoughts on “Sandy Gordon, Leaving Owl Creek (#BookReview)

  1. A thought provoking review and book. It made me think about male family members I know raised in the 50’s who did become successful artists, and what might have helped them avoid that “manhood” path; on reflection two things stand out, one being the death of their father at an early age, and secondly the art scholarship that sent him to Japan and Europe. Once they discover a thriving art and culture scene in a long developed nation, there they stay, finding many like-minded. Perhaps today it can be found in the cities, without having to leave one’s country, but luck, tragedy or strong self-determination seem to be key.

  2. One of Germaine Greer’s mantras was that equality was good for both women and men. Men were straightjacketed into being providers, excluded from the care of their children, and often divided from their real selves because what they wanted to do (e.g. paint, dance, write etc) wasn’t ‘manly’.
    If we could just get it right, everyone would be a lot more contented.

    • Around 2010 I was teaching a college class in which the textbook was chosen for me, so all the writing professors were using the same book. In it was a whole section about gender and equality, and I was surprised by the high percentage of men who said they would take a dramatic pay cut to spend more time with their children. I think you’re absolutely right that men were straight-jacketed in to types of work and long hours that interfered with their actual wants and needs.

      Sue, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the only people who were allowed to participate in literature and the arts were men for a long time only to be told it wasn’t a manly pursuit in later decades. Does that sound right?

      • Good question Melanie, and I think there’s some truth to that, though I also think that while men had a stranglehold on the arts, it was even then not the preferred career of many fathers for their sons (unless they saw a clear and respectable career path?)

        • I just imagine rich men sitting around painting, but all the artists I read about were poor, the sons of working men, who ended up either with a patron or died in poor in obscurity. I’m not sure! It’s something I need to read more about.

        • When I say art, I mean painters, musicians, writers. But certainly, when I was thinking about this, patrons certainly came into my mind, particulary in music as well as visual art.

  3. I knew both artistic and boys boys from the squattocracy at uni. For all the following half century of women’s lib, private boys schools are still turning out far more Christian Porters than the alternative. I soon lost contact so I don’t know how the rebels turned out – philanthropists if they were really rich, otherwise stockbrokers probably.

    • Ha, interesting suggestion Bill about how they might have turned out. I fear you are probably rather right about current private school boys. I know a small number from the elite schools (from my kids millennial generation) who have turned out quiet academics, school psychologists, etc, but that may be more to do with our circles, and Canberra being a different sort of city, so not representative.

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