The publicity for Dorothy Hewett’s first novel in thirty-four years bills The Toucher as ‘a story of sexual intrigue, memory and death’. Maybe, but there’s also a lot more going on, as Hewett subverts conventional ideas of romance, ageing, morality, fiction and autobiography, and the end to which we come.
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.
In her previous Phryne Fisher instalment, Blood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood took advantage of her knowledge of circus and carnival life to weave an intriguing tale spotlighting a whole host of oddball types. Now in Ruddy Gore she uses her insider’s familiarity with the precious world of the theatre to similar effect. Greenwood always handles her material with a deft, almost disdainful assurance, and this book is no exception. The year is 1928, and a special performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Ruddigore is being staged at Her Majesty’s to honour the famous aviator, Bert Hinkler. On her way to the theatre Phryne intervenes in a fight involving a Chinese man, then during the show two of the actors are poisoned, one fatally, and Phryne’s services are engaged by Management to solve the mystery.
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.
Is it possible for love to flourish between an oppressor and one who is oppressed? J.M. Coetzee, in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians, thought not, but Coetzee provided some compensation for his hero by ennobling him to an almost mythical degree in order to present the argument that power can be used equally to fight injustice and brutality, or to inflict it. The main character in Coetzee’s novel, the Magistrate, recognises the pathology inherent in his love for a captured ‘barbarian’, and chooses to return her to her·people. He then becomes a victim himself as he fights the atrocities being perpetrated around him.