Michael Meehan

'What’s in a name?’ as C.J. Dennis and Shakespeare asked. Maybe much, as in nomen: omen – maybe naught, as in the case of the narrator Michael Meehan’s fourth novel, Below the Styx. For this chap’s name is Martin Frobisher, a distinctive name that rings several bells. Sir Martin Frobisher (c.1535–94) was an English navigator who made three attempts from 1576 to 1578 to discover the North-West Passage, giving his name to a bay on Baffin Island and bringing back to England ‘black earth’, which was mistakenly thought to contain gold. He later served against the Spanish Armada and raided Spanish treasure ships.

Meehan’s protagonist would appear to have nothing whatsoever in common with his Tudor namesake, and his name may be a subspecies of that great Australian comic trope, the furphy. From the first page of the book, it is all but impossible to shake the conviction that ‘Martin Frobisher’ has a weighty significance, while it may in fact be empty, a linguistic terra nullius. It may be a Shaggy Dog, happily at home in this benignly witty and whimsical novel, which is also a murder mystery.

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Tin Toys by Anson Cameron & Stormy Weather by Michael Meehan

April 2000, no. 219

These two second novels are rapid follow-ups to acclaimed début novels, Anson Cameron’s Silences Long Gone and Michael Meehan’s The Salt of Broken Tears. Each is, in its own way, resolutely vernacular. Meehan writes about the past and the country; Cameron writes largely about the city, very much today.

In Tin Toys, nevertheless, the characters are very aware of the Australian past. The central dilemmas of Cameron’s novels concern relations between blacks and whites. In Silences Long Gone the narrator’s stubborn old mother refuses to leave her house in a mining town that is being dismantled so that the territory can be returned to its native custodians. In the new novel, the narrator is himself the focus of the dilemma, as the offspring of a white father and black mother (in very peculiar circumstances). He begins life as a black baby, becomes a white boy and ends up a slightly confused young adult. After an opening flashback the narrative is driven by two things that happen to Hunter around the same time. His design for an Australian flag (which he has come up with by complete accident) is selected as a finalist in a national competition and his Japanese girlfriend goes missing in Bougainville.

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In one sense, the publisher’s blurb on this novel says it all.

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