Australia, Author, Book review, Cate Kennedy, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘The World Beneath’ by Cate Kennedy

World Beneath

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 342 pages; 2009.

Cradle Mountain National Park in Tasmania is the main setting of Cate Kennedy‘s The World Beneath. It’s a truly beautiful place, one that I was lucky enough to visit for a couple of days in 2004 as part of a self-drive tour around the state. The park sticks in my memory because the landscape was so beautiful and varied — heathland, grassland, forests, fern gulleys and mist-covered mountains — and quite unlike anything seen on the mainland.

The state itself has often been a conservation battleground. The most famous battle was the Franklin River Blockade of 1982/83, in which a group of non-violent protesters occupied a proposed dam site in an area that had recently been added to the World Heritage list. That blockade turned into an election issue and gained international attention when botanist David Bellamy was arrested.

That particular protest is not the focus of Cate Kennedy’s extraordinarily good novel, but two of her main characters — the New Age guru Sandy and her estranged and well-travelled husband Rich — were environmental activists who met on the blockade. Now, 25 years down the line, both have compromised their green ideals and are living fairly normal middle-class lives.

Tasmanian wilderness

Their “greenie” pasts come back to haunt them when Rich hits upon the idea of taking their 15-year-old daughter, Sophie, on a trek to the Tasmanian wilderness. The trek is on the overland track in Cradle Mountain, a route that is far from quiet and relaxed, because of its popularity with hikers from across the world. But Rich is more interested in getting to know his daughter — he ran out on the family when Sophie was just a baby — and to take photographs that he can sell on at a later date.

Sandy is not so keen on the trip — it’s the first time she’s let Sophie stay with her father since he left — but the reader soon learns that this is borne out of the fear of being unable to cope without her daughter rather than wanting to protect Sophie from harm.

What emerges is a richly-layered novel, told in the third person, that follows Rich’s adventure across the Tasmanian wilderness interleaved with Sandy’s narrative as she deals with life on her own for the first time.

Brilliantly realised characters

They are brilliantly realised characters, full of insecurities and paranoia and a desperate need to be wanted and loved. They might be middle-aged but neither has truly grown up: Rich has never taken responsibility for his actions, Sandy is too ditsy and disorganised to do much with her life except sell outdated jewellery at local craft markets. But both are still living off the glory of having been arrested during the blockade in 1983.

The standout character, however, is Sophie, a teenager, who, in many ways, is more mature than Rich and Sandy. And yet she has deep-seated psychological problems — she is a closet anorexic intent on exercising herself into thinness — which neither of her parents pick up on. It’s rather telling that during her exhausting trek with Rich, in which she eats barely a thing, it is not Rich that notices her lack of appetite but two other hikers they befriend along the way.

And while the book deals with some big themes — what it is to grow old and compromise your values, how we raise our children, the importance of protecting the wilderness and how we relate to nature — it’s a genuinely warm and witty read.

Rich’s inflated ego

I particularly loved seeing the air come out of Rich’s inflated ego. His thinly veiled contempt for modern eco-tourism and the hikers he meets along the way begins to crumble when the full impact of having to slog seven hours a day in mud and rain — with a serious blister on his foot — begins to take its toll.

You could save yourself the money, thought Rich bitterly, and stick a Farbuster Pro exercise treadmill into a shower, turn the cold water tap on, walk underneath it all day with twenty kilos of weights strapped to your back, and get just the same effect.

And Sandy, with her spirit guides, “retreats” and craft markets, who is constantly striving to lead an ethical life that others poke fun at, including her daughter, isn’t much better.

Trying to do the right thing. To not give in to it all, and switch off your conscience. She knew it drove Sophie crazy, sometimes, but then Sophie was a teenager and teenagers thought you were oppressing them if you made them get out of bed in the morning. ‘Who’s going to notice?’ she would say, exasperated, as Sandy refused to drink orange juice that contained pulp from imported oranges. ‘What do you think’s going to happen — the fruit juice police are going to storm in here and arrest you?’ And Sandy would laugh, but a little uneasily, truth be known, because Sophie was right — everyone was kind of policing each other, everyone was under surveillance.

Kennedy puts you in the heads of these characters and shows you their good points and their bad. But by showing the wider context of their lives — where they fit in today’s society as opposed to the role they played in the past — she offers up a domestic family drama on a grander scale. Critically acclaimed American writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and TC Boyle, often came to mind as I read this book; I’d argue that Kennedy is pretty much in the same league.

The World Beneath is currently available as a large format paperback in the UK; a smaller format will be published by Atlantic Books in May.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Steven Lang, University of Queensland Press

‘An Accidental Terrorist’ by Steven Lang


Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 330 pages; 2006.

An Accidental Terrorist is a debut novel that was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award 2006 and has recently earned Steven Lang the UTS Award for New Writing in the 2006 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Even before publication it won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Manuscript from an Emerging Queensland Author 2004.

So I had relatively high expectations when I first began reading this story, which is set in a small town on the southern coast of NSW (in Australia).

Here, amid the old growth forests, tensions are running high between a logging company, forestry workers and local conservationists, a distinctly Australian story that hasn’t been much explored in popular fiction (as far as I am aware).

Kelvin, a young 20-something, who has lead a somewhat depressing and rootless existence on the edge, finds himself returning to his home town, where he shacks up with the beguiling Jessica, a lawyer turned would-be writer. On a neighbouring property Carl, an American with a mysterious past, offers Kelvin work building fences on his land.

But when Kelvin makes some unlikely alliances at The Farm, the name of a communal house where a group of hippies live, he risks losing his newfound sense of security and future happiness.

Without wishing to spoil the plot, let me say that the climax is worth waiting for. Unfortunately, because it is told from too many points of view, the tension dissipates amid the readers’ confusion.

That said, Kelvin’s foray into the bush, on the run, is beautifully told: you are never quite sure whether he is going to survive the escapade or not.

On the whole An Accidental Terrorist is a well paced novel that richly captures the beauty and wonder of Australia’s old growth forests. Some of Lang’s descriptions are so evocative you can almost smell the eucalyptus wafting up off the page.

His characterisation is also spot on, and Kelvin’s back story, revealed in dribs and drabs like a slowly dripping tap, is very well done: slightly disturbing and full of pathos without sentimentality.

But there are flaws in this novel too. The reader is never quite sure whose story this is: is it Kevin’s, or Jessica’s, or Carl’s? There are too many different points of view all vying for attention.

Similarly, the reader is given few clues as to the era within which the book is set. It threw me completely when, about a third-of-the-way through, I realised it was the early 1980s, as I had mistakenly thought it was set in modern times.

But the thing that puzzled me most was this: what was Kelvin’s motivation for getting involved with the lads from The Farm? What made him do what he did? And was it really an act of terrorism or merely an act of vandalism?

If nothing else, this book asks more questions than it answers – often a sign of a good book, although in this case I feel that such questions may have been nothing more than oversights rather than any deliberate attempt to get readers thinking.

Finally, a quick word on the format of this book. At 135mm wide by 180mm high it is a delightfully “squat” book that’s easy to hold and weighs very little despite it being 25mm thick. I’ve not seen this size of novel before, and wonder if it’s typical of UQP?