Rodney 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.
A stolen season
Sydney: Picador, 2018
(Review copy courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)