West Australian author Glenda Guest made quite a splash with her first novel, Siddon Rock, though unfortunately I didn’t read it. It won, for example, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in 2010. I was very keen, therefore, to read her second novel, A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline, when the opportunity came my way.
There is a mystery and a question at the heart of this novel, and protagonist Cassie’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in the opening chapter provides the impetus for their resolution. The mystery is implied in the opening page when Cassie accepts a “brown-paper-wrapped-package” and promises someone something. We soon learn that the package contains a good deal of money, but what the promise is, and why, unfolds through the course of the novel. The question appears on page 8, and is, “What if I was wrong?” About what?
Before I discuss that, though, I want to mention the novel’s organising motif, which is a train trip, assigning this book to the “journey” genre (though perhaps “genre” isn’t quite the right word.) In this genre (or form?), the plot is framed by a journey, by the end of which the protagonist resolves something and/or achieves some sort of personal growth. These stories are as old as literature. The Odyssey and The pilgrim’s progress are obvious examples, but Cormac McCarthy’s The road is a more recent one. Sometimes, the journey is full of adventures, of a series of trials that must be overcome, but some are quieter, more internal. A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline is one of these. There is a physical journey, but most of the action is in Cassie’s mind.
So, why does she take this journey? Well, I’ve implied it already, but will expand a bit more. Cassie left Perth, somewhat suddenly, 45 years before the novel opens. It’s clear that whatever it was that prompted this departure has remained unresolved, but now, with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she wants to be sure she was right – and if she wasn’t, because she does admit this possibility, she wants to do whatever is “needed to make amends”. And why does she want to do this? Part way through the trip she reveals the underlying reason:
I should like to understand myself properly before it is too late.
In other words, this is a true journey story, so much so that while we might think she is going home to confront the people she left, this is not so, as she clarifies near the end:
She had imagined her search for the truth would have been done by the time the Indian Pacific reached its destination, and that she’d be on a plane back to Sydney today. That was her expectation, but inconstant memory has not cooperated – it has twisted and turned, throwing up irrelevant and forgotten things, and so she has to stay.
She had chosen the train then, not just because it was the way she’d left all those years ago, but because it would give her the time think through the situation.
On the surface, the novel has a simple chronological arc following the train journey, but as Cassie travels we flash back to her childhood and young adulthood in WA’s Wheatbelt, and gradually piece together her story. We learn that she’d lived with her parents and an older sister, that her mother had died just before she started high school, and that she was very close to a neighbouring farm family, the Blanchards, who comprise Mary, her husband Hec, and their identical twin sons, Dion and Coe. Indeed, she spent more time with them than with her own family, particularly after her mother died, as she felt superfluous at home and was warmly welcomed by Mary who didn’t have a daughter.
However, things go awry, as they are wont to do in situations like this – and it’s precipitated by the Vietnam War, further complicated by romance and the fact that identical twins are involved. And here is where I should say that the novel plays with another literary motif – the twins one. However, this and the journey motif never overwhelm the focus on Cassie, who captures our attention from the start, and retains it throughout. She’s an engaging, well-formed character, who’s both resilient and vulnerable, warm and reserved. She has suffered, but she is never self-pitying.
The novel’s success, in fact, rests on Cassie’s ability to engage us, because we meet few other characters directly, albeit we meet several indirectly through her flashbacks. The story is told third person, but is limited to Cassie’s point of view. The over-riding theme is memory – memory which is of course threatened by her Alzheimer’s but which she needs if she is to work through the problem she has set herself. As she struggles to remember what happened in the past – to see if she can make sense of it – she is confronted by memory’s slipperiness (which may not always be related to her diagnosis). Here she responds to Jack, whom she meets on the train and to whom she admits that “a single moment changed everything”:
But memory slips and slides around, she says, so you never really know if what you remember about that young person is true. You can never be sure of what happened at any given moment. I don’t want to end with a question mark still in my mind, but maybe I’ll never really know what was right or what was wrong.
There’s one more significant thing that I haven’t mentioned, and that’s Cassie’s career, as an actor and then university drama teacher. Her real specialty, her love, is Shakespeare, and this too frames the novel – alongside the journey and the twins. Late in the novel, she reflects on how she teaches her students:
Look at Shakespeare, she will say, at how he leaves room for interpretation, for each actor to take a character and make it their own. That’s what good actors do – work from the details to create a believable persona, to make the watcher believe the character on the stage is true.
She is trying to understand herself, the life she has created …
And so, in a very real way, this novel is all about the journey. There is a plot – and it’s a powerful almost-melodramatic-in-that-Shakespearean-way one – but the main interest is Cassie, herself, and her predicament, past, present and future. In the end, the question is not whether she was right or wrong, but something else entirely. An absorbing read.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) enjoyed this novel too.
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)