Glenda Guest A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline

Glenda Guest’s follow-up to her prizewinning debut Siddon Rock (2009) is a novel of memory and betrayal. It opens with a brief, arresting scene:

On the kitchen table lies a brown-paper-wrapped package.

Promise, he says.

Yes.

He pushes it towards her.

The ‘her’ is 20-year-old Cassandra Aberline, and the kitchen belongs to the Blanchards, her family’s neighbours in the WA wheat belt. The package contains a large sum of money. ‘Use it to be safe,’ Cassie’s told. ’Buy a house, or make a career.’

Carrying the brown paper parcel securely beneath her jumper, Cassie takes the train across the country to Sydney. But as the novel reveals, the money has come at a hefty price.

These events occurred 45 years ago, and now Cassandra Aberline is an actor of some distinction teaching drama classes at a university in Sydney. She is independent, a loner who prefers her own company; a runner who relishes her early morning routine around the streets of her inner-city neighbourhood.

However, a visit to a neurologist has revealed her vulnerability: she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The diagnosis spurs her to take a trip back into her past, to once again cross the continent on the Indian Pacific, but this time in the opposite direction, and with a luxurious ‘platinum class’ cabin all to herself. Her hope is to ‘somehow in three days and nights … resolve the niggling doubt that has held her to ransom for some forty-odd years’.

It’s a common enough trope, protagonists in search of the past, returning to a particular location and testing their memories, but here the Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the mystery of the money add additional layers. How much damage has the disease done to her brain? Are her memories accurate? Or has she spent a lifetime constructing a version of events to justify her own actions?

The novel is structured around the train journey from Sydney to Perth, broken into sections such as Sydney to Broken Hill, Broken Hill to Adelaide, etc, each section moving fluidly between the present of the train and episodes from the past.

Despite her refusal to accept the implications of her diagnosis — she is determined to return to teaching once this trip is over and ‘not forget Brecht’s name again’ — on the train we see the reality of it when mental blanks leave her stranded in confusion, unable to find her way back to her cabin from the dining car. A kindly steward eventually leads her back to the correct carriage: ‘She tries to tell him she is not drunk but lost, but the words are too large and can’t be said.’

She remembers setting out on that first train journey:

Fragments of that day are embedded like stone chips in her mind: the creak and click of the flyscreen of the farmhouse back door more used to being slammed shut than firmly closed on a life; the drive to the siding, a whistlestop for the new cross-continental train; the sudden thought that there might not be a vacant berth, even though she had phoned that morning and booked her passage; and would the driver remember to make the unusual stop, to pick her up?

When Cassie arrives in Sydney, the Vietnam War is still raging and US servicemen throng the streets of Kings Cross on R&R. Having made good her escape from the west and everything she has ever known, and banked that cumbersome bundle of cash, she falls into working at a tattoo parlour.

There’s an immediacy to these memories, even if at times they do feel like a checklist for Sydney of the era, with glimpses of Madam Lash ‘sauntering’ down the street and the heiress activist Nita (who disappears à la Juanita Neilsen) dropping in for a chat at the tattoo parlour. However the scenes with Bammy, the owner of the tattoo parlour, and Cassie’s clumsy attempts to help a homeless woman, beat strongly.

But it’s the more distant past that is calling Cassandra: her childhood and young adulthood at the family farm, Home Ground, with her father, Alec, and older sister Helen. She and Helen fight ‘like two cats in a sack’, and Cassie feels more at home on the neighbouring property with Mary and Hec Blanchard and their identical twin sons, Dion and Coe.

The boys become like brothers to her (Cassie claims only she and Mary can tell which twin is which), and Mary and Hec surrogate parents. Mary had been an actor in her native Greece but gave it up to marry her Australian soldier and become a farmer’s wife. As the children grow older, Cassie comes to accept that the boys are not her brothers, and her relationship with Coe intensifies. When the twins decide to enlist for Vietnam, she has to accept that there is nothing she can do about it, and their enlistment becomes the touchpaper that ignites what follows.

According to her biography at the front of the book, Glenda Guest grew up in the wheat belt of Western Australia and she describes life on a farm there without sentimentality, showing the isolation and the sheer hard physical work the land requires, and with a poet’s eye for the landscape.

Cassandra has a longstanding love of Shakespeare and there are echoes of Shakespeare in the ultimate unwinding of the plot: there are twins, tragedy, betrayal, and serendipitous encounters. In this otherwise naturalistic novel these slightly larger-than-life elements undercut some of the real pathos at the heart of Cassandra’s story.

But the passion for Shakespeare that infuses the novel can also illuminate tragedy:

Now it seems her mind is reaching for its own darkness: to be made human by the faculty of memory and then to have it ripped away is the ultimate satire, worthy of Shakespeare.

Unlike Siddon Rock, here Guest eschews magic realism, but with its unreliable narrator and Shakespearean plot dimensions, A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline isn’t a completely naturalistic work either. It exists on the plane of memories, where grief can enlarge small events and erase larger ones. Guest’s transcontinental journey provides an engaging and disturbing account of the terrain.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 20 February 2018.

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