Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Thea Astley

‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Multiple-effects-of-rainshadow

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 296 pages; 1996.

Long before Chloe Hooper wrote her extraordinary non-fiction book The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island (2010), Australian novelist Thea Astley penned The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996), also set on Palm Island and based on a similar violent incident.

A fictionalised account of a true story

Palm Island, off the coast of Far North Queensland, was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission. In 1930, the white superintendent, grieving over the death of his wife in childbirth, went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many of the buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return. (You can read more about him and the incident in his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.)

For the purposes of this novelisation, Astley changes the name of the island to Doebin and invents a cast of characters who were present at the time. The book uses multiple voices in self-contained chapters to tell the story of events leading up to the fateful rampage and its aftermath. Most of the voices are third person, but the opening — and very engaging — first chapter is told in the first person.

All of the characters are white, except for Manny Cooktown, an aboriginal man, whose story is told in brief excerpts — written in dialect — between each chapter.

Everything is not as it seems

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow is a wonderful metaphor for race relations in Australia, specifically between 1918 and 1957, although it could also be argued that it remains relevant today.

In its depiction of violence in the tropics, it also reveals that appearances can be deceptive. The island may look like paradise, the superintendent may seem fair-minded, the priest well-meaning, the doctor caring, aboriginals subservient, but there’s more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. Here’s how Mrs Curthoys, a fine upstanding woman who arrives on the island to run the boarding house, describes Doebin:

If you happened upon this island, sails bellied and straining to a landfall, as you balanced on deck with your eyes gummed to this mountain humped above riffled reef waters, you would be enchanted by that necklace of white beaches, foliage growing almost to the sea in a density of plaited vine, aerial roots, leathery green leaves and palms waving casual welcome feathers. Now and again, as the boat rocked, an enchanting white-wall glimpse, the glare of a roof, the spurious domesticity of a cooking fire. God love us, you might say as Father Donellan said that morning of our one and only Mass, what a paradise of a place!

But then she later goes on to describe it as “a rubbish tip for government guilt” filled with aboriginal men white society doesn’t know how to deal with, pregnant women, unmarried mothers, runaways, alcoholics and the old.

Lessons of the past

Astley throws light on a subject many would rather forget and the book’s power comes from the realisation that history has a habit of repeating.

And as much as I was gripped by the characters, most of whom are deeply flawed and full of their own self-importance, and the exploration of Australian society, both before and after the Second World War, the structure of the novel didn’t work for me. It felt too disjointed and, as ever when there are multiple voices, I tended to favour particular characters over others.

But there’s no doubt that Astley can write. Her sentences are often breathtaking — and that’s not just because they are occasionally very long — while her insights into the human heart are hugely perceptive.

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow won The Age Book of the Year in 1996 and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1997. Sadly, it appears to be out of print in the UK, although you can order second-hand copies via online book sellers. My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers for providing the generous gift voucher last Christmas which allowed me to buy this handsome Penguin Modern Classics edition direct from Australia.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Edward Docx, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘The Devil’s Garden’ by Edward Docx

Devils-garden

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 323 pages; 2012.

Edward Docx’s The Devil’s Garden is a dark and disturbing story set in the jungle of South America. It’s billed as a literary thriller, a kind of modern day Heart of Darkness, but it’s quite a slow burner and it’s not until page 218 — two-thirds of the way in — that the action really takes off.

A scientist obsessed by ants

Dr Forle is an entomologist studying the complex social hierarchy of ants. He is based at The Station, a remote scientific outpost in the jungle of an unspecified South American country, with his assistants, Lothar and Kim, four locals and a visiting missionary. Here he is midway through writing a book “that combines the best of my articles for the science journals with my research and findings”.

He has a hidden past, which we never really come to find out about, only that his long-term partner has died and he has come to the jungle to “get away from myself. The man I was before — I didn’t like him”. He is a quiet, reserved man, self-contained and deeply committed to his work. (I hesitate to say the word boring, but it does spring to mind — although Dr Forle isn’t adverse to sleeping with one of his crew and he does dabble with a bit of cocaine usage.)

But the equilibrium of his new life is soon disturbed when two visitors arrive unannounced — a Colonel and a Judge, closely followed by a boatload of soldiers. The guests are supposedly registering local people to vote, but their presence soon ushers in an unwelcome air of surveillance, corruption — and violence.

A sense of menace and unease

The book isn’t a classic page turner in the sense one would expect, but there’s enough menace and unease in the storyline to make it a compelling read. That Dr Forle continues to pretend that everything is all right, that his work must come first, was enough to make me realise that something very bad was probably going to happen at some point… But it does take an awful lot of ground work by Docx to get to the stage where the scales are lifted from our narrator’s eyes — and then all hell breaks loose.

This fear is only heightened by the knowledge that The Station is so deep within the rainforest that “there is only one way in and there is only one way out: the river”.

And the rainforest, which is dark and mysterious, filled with dangerous creatures and beautiful birdsong, heaving with humidity and crawling with insects, is a character all of its own — brooding, temperamental and frightening.

Lothar’s light swept the black. Fronds and leaves and twine lit up, white as fish bones in the  darkness all around. Sometimes there was space, a deeper blackness; other times the forest closed in and we stood a moment — isolated, hemmed, claustrophobic. When we stopped to breathe, a dozen creatures gorged on our blood.

This deeply claustrophobic world, where no-one is to be trusted and where even the jungle is an enemy, is only mirrored by Dr Forle’s study of the ants, which effectively become a metaphor for the human race. To hammer home this point, extracts from the book that Dr Forle is writing are scattered throughout the narrative, and in the following example, it’s difficult to tell if he is writing about humans or ants:

On the one hand, we have the selfish-gene merchants, who claim that traits can evolve only for the good of the individual and not for the good of the group. This has many implications for biology, but also for our society: most of all, it turns the individual into the king of the biological hierarchy. Most of science covertly or explicitly subscribes to this view.

The insect theme is strongly maintained throughout the novel, where the river is described as being “as black as a scarab’s thorax” and where “the insect trill was like some great tinnitus”.

Dark, brooding, pessimistic

And while the prose cannot be faulted, there’s something almost too dark, too brooding and too pessimistic about The Devil’s Garden to make it an enjoyable read. (Peter Temple’s Truth comes to mind.)

Its central redeeming feature, however, has to be its punchy, adrenalin-fuelled final pages (one particular scene left me reeling; it made me want to gag) and the delicious last sentence which suggests that some good may yet come out of such a poisoned Eden…