FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA
“Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge. She was definitely our mother – but, at the same time, she was not our mother at all. Since her dispersal among the fronds of Notley, she had changed. Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of common filmy fern. Six large fronds of tree fern had sprouted from her back and extended past her waist in a layered peacock tail of vegetation. And her hair had been replaced by cascading fronds of lawn-coloured maidenhair – perhaps the most delicate fern of all
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, according to received wisdom. But how about judging a book by its opening line, or its opening paragraph?
Set in the extravagant natural environment of Tasmania, off the Australian mainland, this is a debut novel like no other: highly imaginative, incredibly creative and confoundingly faux-mythological.
In an attempt to save his 23-year-old sister Charlotte from the distressing tendency of the bodies of the deceased females of the McAllister family to return from the dead and self-immolate (bear with!), Levi McAllister decides to design and build a high-quality coffin to contain her ashes when she eventually dies. However, when Charlotte catches sight of evidence of his plans she assumes the worst, and runs for her life…
The novel seems on its way to becoming a straightforwardly alternative road movie of a book, but author Robbie Arnott employs a diverse range of storytelling devices, and the narrative veers into something more technically ambitious, with strong folkloric elements and a focus on the diversity, cruelty and wonder of the natural world.
At times we have a standard third person narrator, but at others the story is told from, say, the first-person perspective of an alcoholic lady detective, or via the lost journal of an insane (or possessed?) wombat-farmer, or the belligerent letters of a temperamental carpenter or even the consciousness of a power-mad (or just straightforwardly godlike?) water rat.
These efforts to push the boundaries of traditional narrative and the hyper-focus on a sort of elemental magical realism can occasionally be taken further than is perhaps wise, tipping into faint ridiculousness. However, the prose is saved from becoming too self-reverential by touches of humour, and is always wonderfully original.
I don’t read much fiction from Australasia, and I meant to get involved with Ausreading month, hosted by @bronasbooks earlier in November. At least I’ve managed to squeeze in one read!