Joan London’s new novel, Gilgamesh, is the story of several generations of travellers, moving between Australia, London, and Europe, as far east as Armenia. As such, it is part of a long and venerable tradition in Australian fiction: a tradition of quest narratives organised around topographical and cultural difference. It would be easy for a structuralist to sketch out the opposing poles between which such narratives are customarily hung, and the standard trajectory of the questing hero or heroine towards adventure and greater self-knowledge. London’s novel deploys these time-honoured structures while, at the same time, ringing some powerful variations on their more familiar novelistic forms.
The novel tracks a number of journeys, arrivals, and departures; but while the main character’s journey starts with saving pennies for her ship fare from Australia to London, this is not the only direction of travel and quest. Gilgamesh begins with the meeting of Australian Frank and English Ada in London at the end of World War I. They migrate to Australia, ‘a country where there will never be another war’, and take up land in a government settlement loan scheme on the south coast of Western Australia. Ada soon becomes known in the neighbourhood, though, as one of the many women who ‘couldn’t take the life’, as the two of them struggle to clear their debts and raise their two daughters. Progressively, they sell off more and more of their land. Sometime after Frank’s death, Ada’s nephew Leopold arrives suddenly from London with his Armenian travelling companion, Aram.