Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 194 pages; 2019.
Australian writer Trevor Shearston is a new-to-me author, but he’s been penning novels for quite some time judging by his GoodReads author’s page which lists eight novels, a short story collection and an academic paper.
Hare’s Fur, published in 2019, is a gentle but immersive story about a man leading a relatively solitary life whose world is opened up by the arrival of three young runaways whom he takes in and shelters.
It’s set on the outskirts of Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, where 72-year-old professional potter Russell Bass lives and works. His wife died 11 months ago and he is going through a period of adjustment. He has a few close friends living nearby — including his sister-in-law, Delys, and her husband, Hugh, who is also a potter — who keep an eye on him, invite him over for dinner and make sure he doesn’t turn into a complete recluse.
He is pretty self-sufficient though and sticks to a regular schedule of work, throwing pots, sourcing clay and wood for his kiln, firing and sending his work off to exhibitions.
Once a month he heads off on foot to the valley below his house to collect iron-rich rock he uses to make glazes for his pots. (The title of the novel, by the way, refers to a type of glaze, black with coloured streaks, that is said to resemble hare’s fur.)
He halted and stared through the columns of trunks. It was like peering into the gloom of a cathedral. The path disappeared among mossed boulders and ferns and pepperbush and the five or six other species that made up the understorey.
On one of these trips, he notices a Mars Bar wrapper on the path, which, in turn, leads him to discover two young children, Emma and Todd, and their teenage sister, Jade, living in a remote cave.
He befriends the trio who have been hiding from DoCS (child welfare) and the police for the past nine days. Both parents have been jailed for drug offences (possession and dealing) and there’s a fear the siblings will be split up when they are taken into care.
This presents Russell with a moral dilemma: does he tell the authorities, or does he help the children evade them, even if that means being drawn into a risky world he doesn’t quite understand? He chooses the latter.
Over the course of this beautifully written novel, we witness Russell’s relationship with the children grow and develop over a short period of time. He provides a safe haven for them, offers food and shelter, and acts as a guide and mentor. He teaches Emma to play chess, shows Jade how to throw pots on a foot-driven wheel and lets Todd watch as much TV as he wants.
A bond of trust evolves but it is as fragile as the pottery Russell creates.
There are risks associated with Russell’s decision. There’s an older sister, Kayla, who arrives with a boyfriend standing in the shadows, spinning a story about trying to find an aunt in Sydney who will take them in. And there’s a fear that neighbours, seeing Russell with children, will want to know who they are and why they are staying with him.
But while these children have effectively turned Russell’s world upside down, their arrival has now given his life new meaning. With them, he is free to be himself. When he tells them his own son died, aged eight, it’s like the “bursting of a bubble in this chest”:
There were people he’d known for years who assumed that he and Adele had been childless.
There’s a melancholy sadness at the heart of this novel, but it’s also an uplifting account of crossing a social divide to help others. It doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of life, but it shows how a gentle, empathetic and nurturing attitude can work wonders on children damaged by forces outside of their control.
And it’s filled with gorgeous detailed descriptions of the landscape and the art of pottery.