Robbie Arnott, Limberlost (#BookReview)

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.

Robbie Arnott
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922458766

Carrie Tiffany, Mateship with birds (Review)

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Book Cover (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Carrie Tiffany is on a roll. Last month her second novel, Mateship with birds, won the inaugural Stella Prize, and this month it won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Many bloggers* have already read and reviewed it so, once again, I’m the last kid on the block, but I have finally got there.

Like her gorgeous first novel, Everyman’s rules for scientific living, Mateship with birds is set in rural Victoria in the past, this time, the early 1950s. Its central characters are the lonely, gentle dairy farmer, Harry, whose wife has left him, and his also lonely neighbour, Betty, who has brought her fatherless children to the country and who works in the local aged care home. The novel takes place over a year, a year that is paced by the life-cycle of a kookaburra family which Harry watches and documents in the spare righthand column of his old milk ledger. These notes, which are interspersed throughout the novel, are delightful and poetic, albeit brutal at times:

They work in pairs
against a fairy wren.
Dad buzzes the nest,
the wren throws herself on the ground
to draw him away.
She pluckily performs her decoy
– holding out her wing as if it is broken.
A small bird on the ground
is easy picking.
Club-Toe finishes her off.

They also provide commentary on the main story which is, as you’ve probably guessed, a love story. It is, however, no traditional romance. The boy and girl, Harry and Betty, are well past their youth and are cautious, given their previous experiences of love and relationships. They reminded me a little of Kate Grenville‘s rather dowdy protagonists in The idea of perfection. They care for each other in all sorts of practical ways: Betty cooks meals for Harry and tends his health, and Harry looks out for Betty and her children, fixing things when he can. A sexual tension underlies all their interactions – over many years – but it’s not openly expressed.  (“When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next”). Harry gradually takes on the role of “father figure” for Michael. However, when Michael becomes interested in a girl and Harry decides to pass on some “father-son” knowledge (“an explanation of things – of things with girls? Of … details of the workings”), including some rather specific physical advice regarding women, Betty is not impressed.

It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it, but there’s something about Tiffany’s writing that makes it feel fresh, original. Part of it stems from her particular background as a scientist and agricultural journalist. Again, like her first novel, she grounds the story in her knowledge of farming life, but not in so much detail as to be boring. Rather, her descriptions give the novel its underlying rhythm – the landscape and the creatures inhabiting it (the kookaburras, owls, magpies, and so on); the milking; the driving into town; the way country neighbours help each other out; the sense of life going on regardless of the little dramas, the kindnesses and the cruelties, that occur. The writing is evocative but has a resigned and rather laconic tone that fits the rural setting.

Although a short book – a novella, really – it’s richly textured. There’s the main narrative drive which flips between Harry and Betty and includes flashbacks to their past, occasional dialogue, gorgeous descriptions (“The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin”), and lists of plants, animals, medications, and so on. Interspersed with this main narrative are Harry’s kookaburra log, Betty’s notebook, Little Hazel’s nature diary, and Harry’s letters to Michael. And all this is layered with imagery involving mating, mateship, birds and humans. You can imagine the possibilities that Tiffany teases out from these. It’s all carefully constructed but doesn’t feel forced. It just flows.

In other words, this is a clever book, but not inaccessibly so. It’s generous, not judgemental. It’s also pretty earthy, with regular allusions to and descriptions of sex. If I have any criticism, it’s  in the persistent references to sexuality. At times, I wanted to say, “ok, I get it, sex – in its beauty, carnality, and sometimes cruelty and brutality – is integral to life” but I kept on reading because … of the writing. I love Tiffany’s writing. I mean, how can you not like writing like this description in which Harry compares Betty to Michael’s girlfriend Dora:

Not like Betty. His Betty is heavier, more complicated. Betty meanders within herself; she’s full of quiet pockets. The girl Dora might be water, but his Betty is oil. You can’t take oil lightly. It seeps into your skin. It marks you.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeI also kept reading because I wanted to know what it was all about. Why was Tiffany writing this particular story, I kept thinking. For some reviewers (see the links at the end), it is primarily about family, for others it is about the relationship between men and women, but for Tiffany it’s about desire. I can see that it is about all these things, but here’s the thing, the book starts with the description of four attacks by birds on humans followed by a description of cockatoos damaging crops. This, together with the sexual imagery, the frequent references to animal behaviour and to humans’ relationships with animals, suggests to me another theme to do with the nature of life, with the nature of our relationships with animals, and with how we accommodate the animal versus the human within ourselves. I’ll give the final word to the birds:

Mum, Dad, Club-Toe
break off their
to attack.
They lose themselves in the doing.
I struggle to tell them apart.
there is no question
they would die for the family
– that violence is a family act.

This book packs a punch!

* You may like to read the reviews written by Lisa (ANZLitLovers), John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante), Matt (A Novel Approach) and Kim (Reading Matters).

Carrie Tiffany
Mateship with birds
Sydney: Picador, 2012
ISBN: 9781742610764

Gillian Mears, Foal’s bread (Review)

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

Foal's bread cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Foal’s bread is Gillian Mears’ first novel in around 16 years, though she has published short stories in the interim. This is a shame because she is a beautiful writer, particularly when she writes about the place she knows best, the farms of the New South Wales north coast.

Foal’s bread is about the Nancarrow family. Most of it takes place between 1926 and around 1950, as it follows the fortunes of Noah (Noey/Noh), her husband Roley (Rowley), and the extended family with which they live. Their main business is dairying, but their passion is the sport of horse high jumping. At the beginning of the novel, Roley is an Australian high jump champion and Noey a young 14 year-old girl with promise. They meet, marry (early in the novel, so no spoilers here) and start working hard to achieve their dream of having their own high jumping team. Hope on, Hope ever, is their motto. That’s the broad plot; the story is far more complex.

This is an archetypal story of strong country people coping (or not) with “luckiness and unluckiness” in life. In its depiction of hardship, stoicism and the will to survive in rural families, it reminded me – in tone if not in story – of Geoff Page’s The scarringThe hardship may come from different quarters, but in both there is a sense of forces out of one’s control combining with things of the characters’ own making. That mix – of characters’ judgement or behaviour clashing with luck (usually bad) – tends to make for a good story, in the right hands. It’s a bit Shakespearean in a way, the clash of character with “the elements”.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

In Foal’s bread, the “bad luck” has many sources, some human and some natural, such as incest, lightning strikes, giving birth to a disabled child, war and drought. How the characters cope with the trials confronting them is the core of the novel. Unfortunately, more often than not, they don’t cope very well. Why? Mainly due to their very human failings. Noey and Roley, whose marriage commences with great love and big dreams, don’t know how to communicate when calamity hits. Noey’s mother-in-law, Minna, lets her jealousy (“of the happiness she’d never seen before”) get the better of her and prefers to increase the tension between her son and his wife rather than to ameliorate it.

By now you’ll be thinking this sounds like a miserable story, and in some ways it is. But it’s not all darkness. While the novel has an almost elegiac tone, its movement is towards light. It has a three-part structure. There’s a very short Preamble which sets a tone of harshness and brutality with its references to incest, bushfires, floods, and animal cruelty.”Watch out you don’t cry” we are warned. Then there is the bulk of the novel in which the story of Noey and Roley is played out. This is followed by a Coda, set some 50 years later, in which we learn that “the old voices remain … funny, flinty, relentless”. These voices are carried into the future by Lainey, the strong, resourceful daughter of Roley and Noey, “her mother’s daughter through and through”.

A strong story, but what gives this novel its real power is the writing. Mears mixes the rough, ungrammatical country-speak of the era with glorious, rhythmical language describing the magpies, butcherbirds, trees, creeks and hills of One Tree Farm. The “one tree” is a jacaranda, and it features throughout the novel. It could almost be, dare I say it, a character. Early in the novel, when all is full of hope, it quivers “to create the feeling of a big bosomed woman wanting to waltz”. Later, as things start to collapse, it loses its leaves, but at the end “the old tree lives on … like a huge purple cloud hiding the rooflines”.

And then, of course, there are the horses. Reading this book reminded me a little of reading Tim Winton’s Breath. Mears does for horse high-jumping what Winton did for surfing. She made me feel the joy and beauty of the jump, of pushing oneself to achieve just that little bit more in a risky sport, of having a dream that keeps you going, of doing “the impossible”. Mears, like Winton, knows her subject inside out, and you feel it in her writing.

I fear I haven’t done the book justice. I’ve not really described its complex plot. I’ve named only a few of its large cast of colourful characters. It’s an ambitious book with big themes and a big style. Not everyone loves it. Some find the dialogue tricky or some descriptions overdone; some think the ending is disappointing; some think it’s stereotypical in places. I think none of these things. I’d love to know what you – if you’ve read it – think!

Gillian Mears
Foal’s bread
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011
ISBN: 9781742376295

(Uncorrected proof copy received from Lisa of ANZLitLovers in a blog giveaway)