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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David Dyer The Midnight Watch

This debut novel asks why the Californian, a mere 20 miles away, did not come to the stricken Titanic’s aid.

What more could there possibly be to say about that extraordinary story of hubris, the Titanic? Surely we all know how it ends: how, in 1912 the biggest cruise liner in the world foundered on an unseasonal iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of the morning and 1500 people perished.

David Dyer’s triumph in this beautifully observed and gripping story is to illuminate a little-known aspect of the tragedy – that another ship, the Californian, was a mere 20 miles away in the hours before the Titanic finally sank and could have rendered assistance but didn’t – and to do it with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the sea (in his non-writing life he served in the merchant navy and worked as a lawyer specialising in maritime law). It also asks a larger question about how we respond when we see others in danger. How might we convince ourselves that something dreadful is not happening? Or that we cannot do anything? Or that we do not know?

History is littered with examples of those who chose not to know (tobacco companies and the link between their products and cancer, for example; Nauru).

The central mystery of the Californian’s inaction is neatly encapsulated the morning after the disaster by Cyril Evans, the ship’s Marconi telegraph operator:

Now his friend on the Birma was asking him directly, ‘Did your ship see the Titanic?’ He sensed the rhythm of ‘yes’ in his hand; he felt the tiny ripple of muscle in the forefinger that would send it. It would take but an instant, and the rest would follow in a few seconds more: ‘We saw her distress rockets.’ But he did not send them. His left hand slid over to clasp tightly his right and he sat still, head hanging low, waiting, wondering, thinking of the captain and Mr Stone. Why had they not gone to the Titanic during the midnight watch? There must be a reason, but he could not think of it.

On the Californian, Dyer’s focus is the ship’s Second Officer, Herbert Stone, who took the midnight watch between 12 and 4 am, the hours when the Titanic sent up her distress rockets. He evokes the depth of the cold that night, ‘the heavy, still air [that] soaked through to the skin as if it were liquid’, the moonless dark, and the smell of the ice in the sea.

Stone would have preferred a career as an English teacher, but he has made the best of being forced by his father to go to sea, and his copy of Moby-Dick is as much a guide to the sea for him as his officer training. He particularly admires the character of Starbuck and his loyalty to Captain Ahab.

But the Californian’s Captain Lord is no Ahab, and the difficult relationship between Stone and his captain goes some way to explaining what follows. Both are actual historical figures, and it’s clear from his author’s note at the end of the book that Dyer has based his novel on extensive research.

The novel is in three parts, and the first is told alternately from the point of view of Stone and directly in first person by a fictional character, the journalist John Steadman, who works for the Boston American.

Steadman has experienced tragedy in his own life with the death of his baby son some years earlier. Estranged from his wife, his sole joy is his daughter, Harriet, who has grown into a young woman campaigning for women’s suffrage. He has a gift for reporting on the dead, and has covered a number of maritime and other disasters, including the Triangle fire at the shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, which claimed the lives of nearly 150 workers:

I gave those girls a voice and returned them to the world of the living. Dead bodies are gone too soon in this country. People never look long enough upon a corpse, and whenever they do look they see only a blank nothingness, or otherwise a fearful vision of their own future. I don’t see these things – I see a very great richness in the present. It takes courage to look upon the dead. It’s not ghoulish.

When news first reaches Boston that the Titanic is in trouble, his editor immediately sends him to New York to report on the dead – ‘There are bodies here, John, I can smell ’em’ – though at this stage no one knows that the ship has sunk.

Steadman arrives at the offices of International Mercantile Marine, the owners of the Titanic’s White Star line, to hear the company’s vice president, Philip Franklin, report that all have been saved and that the Titanic is limping towards Halifax, where the company has organised trains to transport passengers on to New York. When the truth is finally received, it is devastating. Franklin calls the press into his office to read the Marconigram confirming the loss:

No one in the room spoke. I watched Franklin’s face, transfixed. I saw something reborn, something washed clean, something breathtakingly honest. In one word, I saw courage: the courage to face the world anew, courage to stare down the truth. ‘The Titanic,’ he said at last, his sobs subsiding, ‘has gone.’

When news comes that the Californian will be recovering the bodies, Steadman, determined to get the story first, makes it his target. From this point on, Steadman becomes obsessed with what did or didn’t happen on the Californian, with explaining the seemingly inexplicable. The second part of the novel is his account of the formal inquiries into the disaster, first in Washington and then in London, and his own inquiries in Liverpool (home to both Lord and Stone).

The third part, ‘Eight White Rockets’, is Steadman’s imagining of the experiences of a family of third-class passengers on the Titanic en route from England to a new life in Florida. It describes what would have happened to them that fateful night and returns the focus to the dead, reminding us just what has been at stake here.

Steadman is both a hard-drinking journalist and a progressive; he is supportive of his teenage daughter’s suffragette activity (touchingly, he believes the 20th century will belong to women), and ultimately chooses to write about the fate of the third-class passengers rather than the celebrities and millionaires who have received so much publicity. It is his dogged persistence that assembles the pieces of the puzzle and allows the story to unfold, and his eloquence that does so so movingly.

Here is his account of how, less than a week after the sinking, the liner Bremen comes across the bodies of the Titanic’s dead:

The Bremen’s passengers had seen a man in formal evening dress lashed to a door; a young man lying on a steamer chair; a girl tied to a wooden grating. Men and women clung to each other, others were still holding onto children ‘The sight was an awful one to gaze upon,’ said one passenger. ‘I saw the body of a woman with a life preserver strapped to her waist and the bodies of two little children clasped in her arms.’ What must it have been like for these people, I wondered, in those dark minutes after the Titanic left them?

This is a novel of multiple human failings, of stomach-turning stubbornness and lingering humanity. It takes the popular trope of ‘what if’ and ties it to these well-worn events with compassion and flair.

Within it, too, is the story of a world in the grip of change. Steam-powered ships such as the Titanic and the Californian have only recently replaced the great sailing ships; the Californian’s Captain Lord learned his craft under sail and has a poor opinion of those sailors, like Stone, who trained under steam. The Marconi telegraph is also new; if only the Titanic’s distress calls had been made a little earlier, telegraph operator Cyril Evans may have picked them up before he turned into bed at 11 pm. If only …

The Midnight Watch is David Dyer’s first novel, and its assurance suggests it will not be his last. It will be interesting to observe whether the sea will continue to be his subject, but whatever arena he chooses, he is a writer to watch.

David Dyer The Midnight Watch 2016 Penguin Hamish Hamilton PB 336pp $32.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 August 2016

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

Emily Maguire combines a page-turner with a provocative reflection on violence against women.

Emily Maguire’s latest novel tells the story of the aftermath of the murder of a young woman, aged-care worker Bella Michaels, in the little town of Strathdee, somewhere off the Hume Highway in rural New South Wales. It is narrated alternately by Bella’s older sister Chris, and from the point of view of May, a Sydney journalist who comes to Strathdee to cover the case. The murder is particularly brutal (we aren’t given the details, but the ghost of Anita Cobby hovers just offstage) and there are no immediate suspects.

But what drives the story is not so much what happened to Bella, but what will happen to Chris.

This is far more than a page-turning crime drama, though it is also that. Maguire’s focus is on those left behind, the often unacknowledged victims of violent crimes, and roiling beneath it all is a bigger picture of accepted, commonplace and insidious attitudes to women. We do find out whodunnit in the end, but in this context it’s almost a footnote.

The novel holds a mirror up to the casual denigration of women. These are things every woman has experienced and is encouraged to ‘deal with’ and not make a fuss about: things like insulting language (being referred to as a ‘gash’, for example), threatening behaviour (such as being stalked), and dismissive assumptions (‘asking for it’, etc.).

When, just days after Bella’s death, May tells the local policeman that while out for a jog she’s been tailed for blocks by a strange man in a car, the policeman guesses who is responsible and tells her:

‘… he’s all piss and wind. If it happens again, tell him to bugger off, give him the finger, something like that and he’ll go on his way … He’s harmless …’

Do these attitudes explain a terrible crime like Bella’s murder? Towards the end of the novel May recalls being sent scary pictures by a boy in her class at school –pornographic drawings he’d done of her – and muses:

This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller [a Strathdee woman killed by her husband] and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets of Brunswick.

None of it connected, she knew, and yet, and yet, it felt like it.

Surely Emily Maguire chose the title of her novel with deliberate irony. These sorts of killings are often described as isolated incidents, meaning they are not the work of a serial killer. But they are not isolated; they are part of a pattern of violence against women that knows no barriers of class, education or geography.

However, the novel is not a crude anti-men polemic. It is a nuanced portrait of a group of flawed characters, male and female, responding to a tragedy.

Chris encapsulates the complexity at the heart of it: smart, vulnerable, angry, self-aware, she works as a barmaid in the truckies’ pub. She hears this kind of talk regularly, but ignores it and leans forward to show off her generous cleavage to encourage tips. She could get work at the smarter hotel in the middle of town, but she likes the truckies, feels comfortable where she is, even though the pay is lousy, and falls into casual prostitution for extra cash. (Something the police are salaciously keen to seize on as they investigate her sister’s death.)

When finally the persistent May gets to interview Chris, she remarks on Chris’s relationships with the men in the pub:

‘You obviously really like men … It’s so unusual and you don’t even realise it. You don’t realise how much most men dislike women. And knowing that, most women can’t relax around men the way you do. Can’t let ourselves show that we like them even if we really do.’

‘Ah. That’s a different thing, though. I like ’em fine, but I’m never relaxed, not fully. It’s like with dogs. All the joy in the world, but once you’ve seen a labrador rip the face off a kid, you can’t ever forget what they’re capable of.’

When she was a toddler, Chris saw just what a labrador could do when one attacked her cousin Kylie. As a teenager she also saw what men could do when her mother took up with an abusive boyfriend called Brett. As adults the younger Bella took a parental attitude towards Chris, but when Bella was little it was Chris who took her from the house to escape Brett’s violence.

Their fathers absent, their mother dead, the sisters only have each other and consequently have shared a special bond. Little wonder Chris’s grief is all-consuming.

May’s story provides much of the backdrop, as she interviews various locals and tries to paint a fuller picture of the town and what has happened. She also tussles with where to draw the line in reporting a crime like this. Is she exploiting a tragedy or performing a public service in pursuing the story? In pursuing Chris? How much is the public entitled to know? Chris has her own views:

I was making coffee when my phone rang. Unknown number, but I answered it anyway. I’d never do that now, but this was early days. I didn’t get that a bunch of strangers saw themselves as lead characters in a thrilling story which began with the discovery of a pretty dead girl, who happened to have been played by my sister. Feel free to take that personally, by the way.

Chris is a compelling character, utterly believable in her earthiness and honesty. Her grief is raw and unflinching and it’s impossible not to be moved by it. In contrast the dilemmas of May’s life, interesting as they are in their own way, inevitably pale. Yet May provides a necessary counterpoint to the intensity of Chris’s narrative. May seeks to understand what has happened and why; Chris’s task is to accept what has happened – that her sister is gone.

Within its gripping storytelling An Isolated Incident raises many disturbing questions about men and women and about attitudes to what can seem the inevitability of violence by one sex upon the other. But above all this is a powerful and provocative examination of grief, and in Chris Emily Maguire has created a character who resounds in the imagination.

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident Picador 2016 PB 352pp $32.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 7 June 2016.

Robyn Cadwallader The Anchoress

From its medieval cell this debut novel soars into the light.

In 1255 a young Englishwoman, Sarah, chooses to become an anchoress – that is, to be walled up in a cell adjoining the Church of St Juliana in the village of Hartham in the English Midlands. Immediately prior to her immuring, she undergoes a form of funeral service for her previous life: walled up, she is between life and death, her days to be given over to prayer and contemplation.

Her cell is nine paces by seven paces; its window is a ‘squint’, an aperture no thicker than a wrist that allows her to see the altar – and nothing else – of the church. The cell door is nailed shut, never to be opened. If she were to leave, the bishop counsels her, ‘it would be grievous sin against our Lord, and grievous sin against the Church’.

Her situation is not unique. This particular anchorhold, as such cells were known, has had two previous occupants, one of whom, Agnes, has been buried directly beneath it. The village reveres Agnes as a saint, and the arrival of a new anchoress is considered a blessing. The fate of Agnes’s successor, Isabella, is less clear, however.

Why would a young woman choose such a thing for herself? If she must pursue a religious vocation, why not join a convent, where at least there is the possibility of daylight and some kind of companionship?

Cadwallader never quite answers this question, but deftly captures the limitations of medieval women’s lives and attitudes to them. Ranaulf, Sarah’s confessor, has been taught to regard women as:

… lustful and tempting; [at school] he had been told that if he touched a woman, he would feel his flesh burn like the fires of hell. After that, Ranaulf had flinched whenever his mother hugged him. Later, he had fought temptation by reciting to himself the words of the Fathers: ‘daughters of Eve’, ‘gateway of sin’, ‘foul flesh’, ‘deformed male’.

Sarah’s situation is one of relative privilege. Her father is a cloth merchant, she has been taught to read and write and, thanks to her father’s business, has had no lack of beautiful clothes.

But she has seen her mother die after giving birth to her brother, and, more recently and piercingly, her sister has died in childbirth. When her father’s ship founders, its valuable cargo lost to the sea, Sarah’s nascent hopes of a religious life are confronted by reality. Her father tells her:

‘You owe it to me to help, girl. Be more friendly with men and we’ll make a marriage, get a loan. I’ve seen Sir Thomas look at you. Forget this foolishness of God and purity.’

Sarah immediately resolves to ‘resist this man and his demands’. And resisting the demands of men (not only those of her father, it must be said) is a significant part of her decision to become an anchoress. (It’s also fairly clear that she sees marriage as having only one outcome: death in childbed.) The catalyst is Sir Thomas’s father, the local lord, who has noticed his son’s interest in the merchant’s daughter and, determined to prevent his son making an ‘unsuitable’ match – and with an eye on his immortal soul – agrees to fund the anchorhold.

This is not an insignificant commitment. In addition to basic supplies, the anchoress requires the services of two maids, who pass food to her (and remove waste) through a special low-set serving hatch. The lord’s endowment includes a grant of lands to the abbey, which must in turn provide a confessor to visit the anchoress once a week. Cadwallader is good on the details of how such an enclosed life is possible, not only in terms of Sarah’s daily routines, but the support required by the community and the abbey.

For Sarah, there are the rounds of prayers for each part of the day. There are also her efforts to subdue the needs of the body in the service of the spirit.

Yet Sarah is not without company. In fact at times the anchorhold seems more convivial than contemplative. There are the daily interactions with her maids – the older, widowed Louise, and the younger Anna – and the weekly pastoral visits from her confessor, as well as visits from the village women, for whom the anchoress is a source of spiritual advice and comfort. The confessor and villagers speak to Sarah via a narrow curtained window in the cell that opens onto a parlour guarded by the maids. Inevitably, as Sarah gets to know the women, she also gets to know the doings of the village and the world outside.

The walls, she learns, are porous, and not simply in terms of the cold (why Sarah doesn’t die from pneumonia in her first year is a miracle in itself). At one point of crisis she finds:

The stones around me were no longer firm. When I touched them they shifted like water, gave way beneath my fingers. I’d been so sure they were solid, sealing me in, sealing out the world, but now I could see right through them. The world could thrust its way in.

For a vocation that values sexual abstinence (Sarah’s virginity is a ‘fragile treasure, your jewel, the blossom of your body offered to the Lord’ according to the bishop), there is a robust sensuality running through life in the anchorhold. Whether memories of Sarah’s own desire, or ecstatic visions of sensual union with Christ, or the activities of the villagers (one night two lovers use the anchorhold’s parlour for their tryst), there seems no escape from awareness of the body and its demands.

Village women come to her with stories of wife-bashing, the progress of the seasons, the difficulties of harvest, of the lord’s enclosure of common lands, of rape and possibly arson. All Sarah can do is pray for them. Is it enough? For the women, it seems so.

The contest between the physical and the spiritual is central to the novel and to the Rule governing anchorites, which acknowledges that the ‘outer rule’ of physical comfort may need to be varied to ensure the functioning of the ‘inner rule’ of spiritual practice.

This dualism of inner and outer, physical and spiritual, is echoed in the paradoxical image of the acrobat that recurs throughout the book. As a child Sarah saw an acrobat flying through the air, and longed to have his freedom:

But that was as a child, when my body was secure, like that of a boy, and I felt myself whole and able to try anything.

As a woman, her options are more limited. However, by choosing enclosure, Sarah believes she has achieved a superior kind of flight:

I’d thrown away everything in this world and leaped into the air, lighter than I’d ever been, flying to God, who would catch me in his arms. Here … I was a body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear …

It is Sarah’s interior story that flies highest. Part of what the anchorhold teaches her is to face her own past. As Ranaulf tells her during a heated exchange after she has had a particularly disturbing visitor, ‘Don’t come to God and ask to be safe, Sister.’

The exterior story, of the abbey, the villagers, the local lord and Sarah’s relationship with her confessor, keeps things moving but can at times feel a little forced (there is a fire at one point that feels a bit like wishful thinking). Nevertheless, Robyn Cadwallader has avoided easy options with her plot.

This is a novel of visions, demons, and ghostly presences, balanced against the world of the flesh and its temptations. There is – literally – often an apple to hand. It is also a novel of page-turning grace. The language is frequently beautiful, and Sarah’s choices linger long in the mind.

Robyn Cadwallader The Anchoress Fourth Estate 2015 PB 320pp $32.99

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books.

Ellen van Neerven Heat and Light

This award-winning young writer delivers a debut collection of stories that ranges widely across themes of longing, identity, destiny and desire.

Heat and Light is divided into three parts: ‘Heat’, ‘Water’ and ‘Light’. Each part has a distinct character, but a restless yearning underlies all three.

‘Heat’ is a sequence of five linked stories that unspool the secrets of the Kerrigan family. It is a strong, sinewy sequence, almost a novella, with a definite gothic undertone of carelessness and retribution. It opens with 20-something Amy discovering that the woman she has known as her grandmother is in fact her grandmother’s sister. Her real grandmother is Pearl, a beautiful, mysterious woman with an affinity for the wind …

Read the rest of this review at the Newtown Review of Books.