Bereft

Bereft_fnl_cvr

It’s remarkable how many ‘Classic’ art works, if not the majority, received a very shaky reception at their initial publication. It makes you ask the question; how could a self-respecting, intelligent professional reviewer have failed to see Moby Dick/Pride and Prejudice/Lolita for what they so ‘obviously’ are? How is it that William Blake never exhibited, and Van Gogh never sold a painting? Conversely, the stunning review is a less-discussed, but equally peculiar phenomenon. These works often appear with a bang, but decay into silence without much more than a whimper.

A reviewer is a person recognised by their footprint; they make an impression which is signified by so much empty space. Their task is entirely concerned with the work of others, but suffused with their own personality; likes, dislikes, observations borne of the nature and calibre of their sensitivities, and of course, their politics. The Age newspaper review of Bereft was glowing; its last line exhorting that whoever was reading should ‘read it next’. It sounded good. An Australian gothic novel about a soldier named Quinn who, returned from the First World War, damaged by gas, haunts the hills around his childhood home town of Flint. Believed killed on the battlefields of France, he is a pariah; his father and uncle will kill him on-sight for the purported rape and murder of his younger sister, committed many years ago. The town is the grip of the Spanish ‘flu, and whether it’s the residual effects of the gas or something more sinister, Quinn befriends a young girl who also lives in the hills and bears an uncanny resemblance to his long-dead sister.

Nick Cave once said that ‘Australia is a lot like Texas’. There is a mythic quality to the landscape; the topography and its denizens resonate in the force-field of a dark poetic mystery. In this regard, the novel is a success. The historical setting is compelling, and Quinn seems to be so addled by battle sickness and the after-effects of gas that his reality pitches from the French battlefields to the Australian rural countryside. Wormesley does a great job in pulling both us and his protagonist from one setting to another with ease and alacrity like a painted backdrop at a diabolical opera.

Beyond this, I thought the novel was really sketchy in every way. It borrows heavily from Cormac McCarthy’s renditions of the American West, most notably Child of God and Blood Meridian, without the depth and sophistication. All the really interesting stuff in the book, like Quinn’s status as rapist and murderer is quickly undone – he’s actually a ‘nice’ boy who has been misunderstood, so it’s easy for the reader to like him – and the ghost of his sister isn’t really his sister at all. The villain turns out to be his uncle, who is no more than a lumbering idiot. The novel’s moral conundrums are swiftly resolved, freeing the reader from their simple convolutions without much of a struggle.

I also think the novel’s craft also leaves something to be desired. There is a scene where Quinn runs into his uncle while lurking sneaks in the town graveyard. Ten years older and somewhat disfigured by a shrapnel scar, the uncle struggles to recognise him. Their interface is disrupted by the arrival of a widow, coming to visit the grave of her husband who has died in the war. The scene vacillates between the possible outcomes of Quinn’s being discovered or affecting his escape. Finally he escapes, courtesy of the assistance of the widow. The danger never appears real and the widow is, in my opinion, a further reason why the novel read as phoney, but has been a hit with critics.

There are certain subjects that will ensure success with the Australian arts establishment. The astonishing critical success of Nick Cave’s astonishingly awful film, The Proposition, is proof of that. It has an outback Australian gothic setting, obviously important token female characters and pretensions towards art and literary references. Most of those in Bereft arrive through the character of Quinn’s mother, who injects ‘culcha’ into her children’s upbringing courtesy of her own erudition. These kinds of references flatter a certain kind of reader and create a connection to other works of literary merit, regardless of how tenuous.

Bereft of $32.95, if anything.

Read The Age review here:

http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/bereft-20100827-13vps.html

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