Fiction – paperback; UWA Publishing; 158 pages; 2019.
John Hughes’ No One is a beguiling novel about ghosts, memory and identity. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.
One man’s quest to ease his conscience
Set in inner Sydney, it tells the story of one man’s quest to discover the person he believes he may have hit in his car driving home in the early hours of the morning. The only problem is, he didn’t see what he hit, he simply felt a “dull thud, like a roo hitting the side of the car” and later noticed the damage to his beaten-up old Volvo station wagon — a dent on the passenger side near the front bumper.
I looked again at the depression in the front panel. It seemed larger now, and higher on the body. A dog could not have made such a dint, I thought, or only a dog as large as a man or a roo. What I did then I can’t account for. For some reason I looked up, as if I felt I was being watched, though I knew there was no one there. I’ve come to think that everything that followed can be traced back to that sensation, though if someone were to ask me what it was, I would be at a loss to explain. I often feel in any case that language is really no more than a banging of our head against a wall.
Haunted by what he may have done, he returns to the scene of the “crime” near Redfern Sation but cannot find anyone injured nearby. He visits a local hospital to see if any hit-and-run victims have been admitted. His search proves futile.
A crime without a victim
At its most basic level, No One is simply a mystery without a resolution. It’s not even clear whether a crime has been committed — there’s certainly no victim unless we consider that the man himself is the victim of his own paranoia and sense of guilt.
But scratch the surface and there’s a whole lot more going on within this slim novel, so much so that something I thought would take me a few hours to read took a week or more. I wanted to savour the story, to reflect on certain episodes within it, and to enjoy Hughes’ hypnotic prose style and his metaphor-filled narrative.
I particularly admired his playfulness with the themes of memory and time and the strange ways in which our brains process events, and I was occasionally reminded of Gerald Murnane’s work, which often explores similar issues.
A traumatic childhood
Much of the story focuses on the man’s upbringing. A child of Turkish immigrants who abandoned him, he was raised in five different foster homes in various wild and remote places of Australia. These experiences shaped his outlook on life, his separateness from Australian-Anglo culture in general, and his inability to “escape his childhood”.
A transient as an adult, he has lived in a series of boarding houses and prefers those on the outskirts, rather than the city, because it’s quieter and “the sky seems wider and there are paddocks and areas that feel unused”.
He discovers a sense of home when he hooks up with an Aboriginal woman, whom he dubs The Poetess. She helps him on his quest to find the missing victim of his crime, but that, too, proves futile, and their relationship, cemented by mutual loneliness, is put to the test when her violent ex-partner, responsible for her scar-ravaged face, arrives on the scene.
When a shocking real crime is committed, it feels almost as chimeric as the ghostly one that has frustrated the man from the beginning. And while I personally didn’t think this climax was needed to make the story work, it makes an unarguable point: that violence, whether seen or unseen, is often the common thread that binds minorities, whether they be women, immigrants, orphans or indigenous Australians.
There’s much more to unpack in this novel, and I suspect different readers will gain different insights from it. Rich in language, in metaphor and allegories, and told in an episodic, languid and dreamlike fashion, No One is about alienation, belonging and Australian identity.
This is my 5th for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award and my 4th novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it not long after it was longlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award. It was published by University of Western Australia Publishing, which is a 15-minute drive down the road, so it feels local even though the story is set largely on the other side of the country and the author resides in NSW.