A little puce head slipped out, followed by a rush of blood and water. Jerra saw it splash onto the gynaecologist’s white boots. Across Rachel’s chest the little body lay tethered for a moment while smocks and masks pressed hard up against Rachel’s wound. He saw a needle sink in. Someone cut the cord. Blood, grey smears of vernix. The child’s eyes were open. Jerra felt them upon him. From the little gaping mouth, pink froth issued. They snatched him up.
Before you start this novel, take a big, deep breath. Aljaz Cosini – riverguide, ex-footballer, drifter – is drowning, and we’re going along for the ride. There he is, stuck fast beneath the surface of Tasmania’s Franklin River, hopelessly wedged between rocks, his one free arm waving grotesquely to the unlikely band of adventurers who have paid for his services. The irony isn’t lost on him. Not much is lost on him at all. It seems his whole life, from his miraculous birth (struggling to break free from the restrictive sac of amniotic fluid) to his final humiliation on the river, has been leading inevitably to this moment. And now the river carries not only his own past but the pasts of all those who have gone before him like a great tide of stories washing over him, pushing him down, forcing more and more water into his lungs. Stories, stories, stories. A world and a land and even a river full of the damn slippery things.
It would not be unreasonable, given the title and the cover (saffron-tinted, showing a vaguely Buddha-like image overlaid with helicopter gunships) to expect Ceremony at Lang Nho to be about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Well, we all know about judging books by their covers, don’t we? The image is no Buddha, but an elaborate twelfth-century European beehive, and the helicopter gunships are themselves overlaid by little golden bees. And the true battleground of this novel is not Vietnam but the family and the individual psyche.
This is the first novel for Jane Messer who, we are told, is writing a second book as part of a Doctorate of Creative Arts – and, I must admit, that put me off a bit. Not that I think writers should be uneducated, but academic qualifications in ‘creative writing’ are still a bit suss as far as I’m concerned. I don’t like the thought that I’m reading someone’s term paper, or Master of Arts in Writing from John Hopkins University.
The inner-suburban dinginess of Cosmo Cosmolino could place Helen Gamer within an honourable tradition stretching at least from Dickens (Charles) to Dickins (Barry). It is a tradition that, observing the mundane and the domestic (not to be confused with each other), has produced works of pathos and wit, of great emotional intensity and sparkling humour. It is a tradition within which great writers have managed to invest dull lives, mean-spirited characters, and tawdry events with charm and universal significance, with an appeal reaching beyond the local and the specific. It is also a tradition within which great novelists ensure that their readers’ sympathy and curiosity are aroused to the extent that they will keep turning the pages well beyond bedtime and care about what comes next.
What do you do when you wake up in the morning and feel the shifty shadow of God lurking? You stay in bed, and hope that it’ll pass you by, that’s what. Sam Pickles doesn’t. He goes to work and loses his fingers in a winch: when he takes his glove off, they ‘fell to the deck and danced like half a pound of ...
I have walked long and often with this writer man, travelled with him on trains, listened to him give exact references on the Melways map, noted him noting his whereabouts and those places about and abutting his whereabouts, and I am still uncertain why his work interests me so much, unless it be that the geography of the imagination is the first and the last landscape of grasslands to be explored and that the inland of an island such as ours will always be an ambiguous place which may display a real sea and a centre or mirages of either.