Where should I start my discussion of Robbie Arnott’s third novel, Limberlost? Perhaps with the epigraph. It’s by Gene Stratton Porter, and says, “In the economy of Nature, nothing is ever lost”. I have posted on Porter – on her essay, “The last Passenger Pigeon”. She was, says Wikipedia, an author, nature photographer, naturalist and silent-film producer.
Some of you will know her for her now classic novel, Girl of the Limberlost (1909). My mother adored it, and passed it on to me. I adored it too, and passed it on to my daughter, who adored it in her turn. It is a beautiful book about love of place (Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp) and a young woman, Elnora, living with a wounded, neglectful, widowed mother. It is about how Elnora obtains sustenance (physical and emotional) from nature. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, in the style of the time, but Porter won me over with her description of the Limberlost Swamp and with her young protagonist Elnora’s strength. (Oh, and with Elnora’s beautiful lunchbox, which, apparently, also impressed author Joan Aiken! I wanted one.)
So, Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost … it draws more than a little – but also not a lot – from Porter and her novel. It is about a teenage boy Ned who, though not neglected like Elnora, is living with a loving but stressed and often remote father. It is set in a stunning and beautifully-rendered-by-Arnott environment, in this case northeast Tasmania, in the Tamar River valley. There are enough similarities to suggest that Arnott also loved Porter’s novel. However, Arnott has taken this kernel – troubled teenager left frequently alone in a beautiful environment – and woven a more subtle story about, well, let’s talk about that now …
Fundamentally, Limberlost is a coming-of-age novel but one that also happens to tell a whole life from childhood to 90s – in just over 200 pages. That’s impressive writing. If you like family sagas, this is not for you, but if you are interested in what makes a life a life then Arnott has written just the book. In this case, we are talking specifically the life of a man. I have reviewed a few books over the years that explore manhood – Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review) and Sandy Gordon’s Leaving Owl Creek (my review), being two. Arnott’s book has its own take on this question.
He’d never felt so brotherless
The central narrative takes place over summer, near the end of World War 2, when Ned is 15. With his mother having died within months of his birth, and his two older brothers, Bill and Toby, being away at war, it is just Ned and his father on the family orchard, until big sister Maggie arrives to make it three. The core chronology follows Ned through summer, but the narrative shifts back and forth in time as events segue to other experiences in Ned’s life.
Ned is a sensitive, reflective young man. The novel starts with a scene from when he was 5. The community was awash with rumours and fears about a mad whale causing death and destruction at the mouth of the river, so Ned’s father had taken his three boys out in a boat to the eye of the storm, as it were. This little incident is key to the novel, because it is about facing fears, about checking the truth of stories, about memory – and about fathers and brothers. Throughout the novel, Ned struggles to remember what really happened in the various events of his life, starting with this one. Which brother had given him a coat that night when he’d shivered with cold? This bothers him, but what is more important is that “he remembered the warmth of the wool”.
It is perhaps the challenge of being the baby brother, but for Ned the struggle to feel competent – like his father, like his brothers – is ongoing. At 15, he dreams of having a boat, and he works hard to realise it, by trapping rabbits and selling the pelts. Achieving this dream would bring him two victories: “He’d have the boat, and he’d have people’s shock at the casual totality of his competence”. There is a guilty niggle, though, because his trapping for pelts looks “nobler” – providing pelts for slouch hats, while his brothers are at war – than he knows in his heart it is.
Limberlost, however, is not only about manhood and brotherhood. It is also a work of eco-literature (about which I’ve written before). The novel’s epigraph, along with the opening “mad whale” scene, clues us into this. Nature – the natural world – thrums through the novel – from the whale, the rabbits, and the quoll he mistakenly traps, to the beautiful giant manna gums (or “White Knights”) that Ned logs in a short stint on a logging crew. Many of the descriptions of the animals, plants and landscape are visceral in the way they act upon Ned’s emotions and consciousness. Ned’s relationship with this world is complex – at times it terrifies, at times it nurtures, at times he takes from it (such as logging and rabbit-trapping) and at times he gives back (such as returning the quoll), but it is always there. Arnott’s natural world is beautiful but fierce. It is also threatened – by man’s actions upon it – which Arnott shows graphically but not didactically.
There are many strong, dramatic descriptions of nature in the novel, but I’m gong to share a rare joyful one. It comes during Ned’s honeymoon, after he had experienced the true joys of lovemaking (in one of the best sex-scenes I’ve read for a while):
Afterwards he’d driven them across the plateau through white-fingered fog, through ghostly stands of cider guns, through thick-needled pencil pines, through plains of button grass and tarns, through old rock and fresh lichen, until the road twisted and dived into a golden valley. Here at winter’s end, thousands of wattles had unfurled their gaudy colours. As they descended from the heights their vision was swarmed by the yellow fuzz. Every slope, every scree, every patch of forest, every glimpse through every window was a scene of flowering gold.
The rolling, breathlessly joyful rhythm of this description is very different to that in the next paragraph where Ned’s old fears return, and the sentences become clipped, and staccato-like.
Arnott also refers to the presence of local First Nations peoples, to Ned’s awareness of their knowledge of the land. “At no point, Ned had heard, were they hungry” – not the way he and Callie were as they struggled to make their little orchard work. Some members of my reading group, with whom I read this book, felt this was anachronistic, but the Tasmanians amongst us argued that northern Tasmanians have long been aware of First Nations presence.
The final point I want to make concerns dreams and imagination. Ned, as I wrote above, feels guilty about his boat-dream when others think his rabbit-trapping is war-effort related, but it’s the dream that sustains him. When crisis comes and dreams are shattered – not in the way you are expecting so this is not a spoiler – Ned is devastated:
He wanted something to do, something to love. He had … nowhere to push his imagination, nothing to dream of … nowhere to turn his thoughts from reality … He felt cut loose from the anchors he’d been dropping all summer. He’d never felt so brotherless.
Limberlost is a great read. It is imbued with warmth for its world and characters, but it is not sentimental, nor simplistic, and no answers are given – except for one, the ties that bind, family. The novel starts and ends with father and brothers – but in between are real lives lived authentically in a vividly-rendered landscape that has its own life. Beautiful.
Several bloggers got to this before me, including Lisa, Kimbofo and Brona.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2022