Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Murray Bail, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail

ThePages

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 208 pages; 2009.

It’s been 10 years since Murray Bail’s last novel, the oh-so wonderful Eucalyptus, which is one of my all-time favourite books. I was anxiously awaiting this new one and had it on pre-order from Amazon for what seemed like forever. When it thudded through the mail box late last week, I devoured it hungrily. Unfortunately, I was slightly disappointed by it.

I’m not sure why. The writing is exquisite, with touches of modernism (Patrick White came to mind on more than one occasion), and the characters are wonderful: well drawn, believable and quirky. The narrative, however, is vague, and there were times when I wondered, where is Bail going with this?

Dual perspectives

The story is told from two intertwining perspectives. The first is largely from the point of view of Erica, a 45-year-old unmarried philosopher from Sydney, who is sent to a sheep station in the NSW outback to appraise the work of another philosopher, Wesley Anthill, who has died and left all his papers in his writing shed. The second is told from Wesley’s point of view, first as a young man, who leaves the farm and moves to Sydney in search of “experience”, before wandering through the UK and Europe, and then returning home to toil away on his life’s work.

It’s made clear from the start that Erica is a fish out of water. She’s city born and bred, and the prospect of going over the Blue Mountains into the outback fills her with dread. To alleviate the boredom, she takes along her good friend, Sophie, a psychoanalyst.

The dynamic, and the unspoken tension, between this pair certainly enlivens the narrative, particularly when they arrive at the sheep station and find their hosts, Wesley’s siblings, Roger and Lindsey, are reclusive country bumpkins not used to talking, much less entertaining two “sophisticated” guests.

Laconic humour

There are some funny moments throughout, a kind of laconic humour that brings a smile to the dial, along with some lovely homesick-inducing descriptions of the landscape and interesting turns of phrase, such as this gem:

Also on the table was a bottle of tomato sauce, almost finished, the leftovers clinging to the insides, like the remnants of the British Empire.

And this:

Men in the square were happily playing boule in the face of their fast-approaching deaths.

Much of the book is a kind of treatise to philosophy — and posits that the Australian climate and landscape do not generate the kinds of conditions necessary to develop philosophical thought.

Hot barren countries — alive with natural hazards — discourage the formation of long sentences, and encourage instead the laconic manner. The heat and the distances between objects seems to drain the will to add words to what is already there. What exactly can be added? ‘Seeds falling on barren ground’ — where do you think that well-polished saying came from?

And he juxtaposes this with the idea that Sydney may not be a philosopher’s city but it is “the most psychological city in the world” where people go into therapy to talk about themselves.

What is going on here? The skies are blue, forever cloudless — is that it? A great emptiness sending people back to themselves. Now that the city is up and running, no longer a country town, there’s been a transference from the landscape and its old hardships to the self?

A philosophical read

There are some big ideas here, and I suspect anyone who’s studied philosophy (I haven’t) will love it. But I was left wondering whether I had missed anything. Was Wesley’s philosophy anything more than the average Australian youngster who backpacks through Europe and returns home feeling as if they’ve discovered themselves and the world?

The Pages is one of those books that asks more questions than it answers, and I suspect it’s one of those novels that requires a second reading to fully appreciate. I think this quote by the Independent, on the back of my paperback, sums it up perfectly: “This book is as hard and sparse as that landscape, but no less beautiful for that.”

The Pages was shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Tim Winton’s Breath.

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksDespite growing up in Australia and spending the first 29 years of my life there, I can’t say I’m very well read as far as Australian fiction is concerned. I do miss the “Australiana” sections that are found in pretty much every Aussie bookstore. This means I usually stock up on Aussie literature whenever I go home, because it’s often hard to get on this side of the world, unless, of course, the novelist pens international bestsellers.

Here’s my list of favourite Australian fiction books, written by Australian authors and set in Australia (in alphabetical order by author’s name):

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

This is a wonderful fable-like story, set in rural NSW, in which a man plants hundreds of different species of gum trees on his farm. When he announces that his 19-year-old daughter, Ellen, can marry the first man to name all the species correctly, a series of would-be suitors from around the world turn up, but many are more interested in the challenge than the prize. Set under the searing light of the unrelentless Australian sun, this story reads like a magical fairytale about love, destiny and nature.

This book won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1999 Miles Franklin Award.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)

Oscar-and-lucinda

This unforgettable book set in mid-19th century Australia is a rollicking good adventure story that combines old-fashioned romance with history, humour and religious piety. The two characters — Oscar, an Oxford clergyman, and Lucinda, an orphaned heiress — both share a penchant for gambling. Together, they make the biggest gamble on earth: to transport a crystal palace of a church across the harsh and dangerous Australian bush without destroying it in the process.

I’ve read a handful of Carey books, but this one stands out in my memory the most. The characters are wonderfully realised, strong and believable, and the descriptions of the Australian bush and life at that time in history are pitch-perfect. The 1997 film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, is a very good adaptation.

This book won the 1988 Booker Prize, the 1988 Miles Franklin Award and the 1989 National Book Council’s Banjo Award.

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall (1991)

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall

Hall’s novel, the second in the Yandilli Trilogy, is a classic of the Australian convict genre. In this dark, but spellbinding book, a young convict escapes his captors and finds himself on the run in the unfamiliar Australian bush. He is adopted by a tribe of aboriginals, who revere him as a kind of mythical creature. But the narrator remains a solitary being who wanders dreamlike through the landscape for two years, before being recaptured.

I read this shortly after publication because it had attracted a lot of media publicity. The writing was poetic and lyrical, but the mood of the book was almost Gothic, dark and claustrophobic in places.

While this book did not win any awards, it was critically acclaimed for its exploration of universal themes: civilisation, exile, justice and our need for human companionship.

My Brother Jack by George Johnston (1964)

My Brother Jack by George Johnston

My Brother Jack is my favourite book of all time. As a person who never re-reads books (there’s too many other unread tomes to make my way through), I have made an exception for this one and have read it several times now. I first read it as a teenager (it was on my school syllabus), then again in my twenties and more recently in my thirties. I particularly identify with the narrator, David Meredith, because he is a journalist who becomes an expat Australian, which is kind of the story of my life too.

Essentially it’s a tale about two brothers who grow up in suburban Melbourne between World I and II. The elder brother, Jack Meredith, is the epitome of the macho Aussie male who is full of bravado and wants nothing more than to fight for his country, while David, the narrator, is more introverted, unsure of himself and lacks self esteem. Ironically, it is David who gets to see the frontline as a celebrated war correspondent
while Jack, through one misfortune after another, never passes his army medical.

This book has been described as a quintessential Australian novel which explores two Australian myths, that of the man who loses this soul as he gains wordly success, and that of tough, honest, Aussie battler, whose greatest ambition is to serve his country.

This book won the 1964 Miles Franklin Award. George Johnston died in 1970.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

If you’ve ever seen the 1975 Peter Weir film of this book, then you will know this story is very atmospheric, if slightly creepy. It’s about a party of schoolgirls who go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, a real-life sacred aboriginal site near Mt Macedon in Victoria, on Valentine’s Day 1900. During the picnic four girls mysteriously disappear when they explore the rock.

Despite the fact that there is no satisfactory conclusion to this intriguing mystery, it’s a cracking read. One of the best things about this book is Lindsay’s evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape and wildlife.

A final “secret” chapter was published in 1987, which supposedly solved the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. But I never bothered to read it, because I quite liked the idea that it was up to the reader to figure out what happened; it was part of Picnic at Hanging Rock‘s charm.

1915 by Roger McDonald (1979)

1915 by Roger McDonald

This debut novel explores the seminal year in Australia’s history, the year that gave birth to the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) legend that endures to this day. It’s essentially about two boys from the bush, shy Walter and extroverted Billy, who sign up to fight in the Great War on the other side of the world. It’s a moving and passionate story that mirrors Australia’s coming of age, and when I read this book as a 16-year-old I was completely smitten by the whole drama and romance of it.

It was made into a popular television mini-series in the mid 1980s.

The Great World by David Malouf (1990)

The Great World by David Malouf

The blurb on the back of this book sums it up better than I ever could: “Every city, town and village has its memorial to war.  Nowhere are these monuments more eloquent than in Australia, generations of whose young men have enlisted to fight other people’s battles — from Gallipoli and the Somme to Malaya and Vietnam.  In The Great World, his finest novel yet, David Malouf gives a voice to that experience.”

Essentially The Great World is about two men, Vic and Digger, who become POWs during the Second World War and how that soul-destroying experience affects the rest of their lives. It is, above all else, a tale of mateship and a study of human nature under extreme conditions.

When I read this in my mid-twenties the story stunned me. It was the first time I’d ever read a book about men living under such brutal conditions; these were the men of my grandfather’s generation, who still lived and walked among us. There’s one particular scene in this book which remains with me more than a decade after having read it: of a POW guiltily gulping down food that does not belong to him while eyeballing his mate who has caught him in the act. That one scene says so much about the human condition, it still makes me cringe with a kind of knowing embarrassment.

This book won the 1991 Miles Franklin Award, the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1991 Prix Fémina Etranger.


The Harp in the South
by Ruth Park (1948)

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park

This is one of those books every Australian teenager is made to read at school. Set at the end of the Second World War, it chronicles the ups and downs of an Irish Catholic family living in an inner-Sydney slum among the razor gangs, brothels and grog shops. The main character, Rosie Darcy, falls in love and makes something of herself despite the sadness, despair, violence and poverty that fills her existence.

I’ve included this on my list, because I think it provides an interesting glimpse of the immigrant experience at an important time in Australia’s history.

This book, which is a trilogy, was made into a mini-series. Ruth Park, a New Zealander by birth, was an incredibly prolific author, writing both adult and children’s fiction, including the much-loved Muddle-headed Wombat series.

Tree of Man by Patrick White  (1955)

Tree of Man by Patrick White

This is an extraodinary story about ordinary people living on the edge of the Australian wilderness at the turn of the 19th century. Stan Parker and his wife Amy are pioneers struggling to survive the harsh environment. The novel follows their ups and downs, highs and lows, their triumphs and disappointments. The great beauty of Tree of Man is that it provides the most enlightening glimpse of a past way of life and chronicles the achievements of Australia’s pioneers in a non-glorifed but totally real way.

I have to admit that when I read this circa 1990, it took me two goes because at almost 500 pages it seemed so impenetrable, the writing was also very dense and heavy, while the lack of plot was a challenge. But perserverance paid off, and when I eventually finished it I felt genuinely sad that this lovely family saga had come to an end.

Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973; he died in 1990.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (1991)

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Cloudstreet refers to a broken down house on the wrong side of the tracks in Perth, Western Australia, the most isolated city on earth. But when two rural families, the Lambs and the Pickles, move into the ricketty old structure they turn the place into a home against all odds.

The story follows their complicated soap-opera-ish lives over the course of 20 years, and it is, by turns, funny and heartbreakingly sad.

This book received huge publicity upon publication and Winton, who was born in 1960, was hailed as Australia’s new literary hero at a time when there didn’t seem to be any new, young writers around.

This book won the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Are there any other Australian books that you think are worth including on this list?