Vintage, $19.95 pb, 174 pp
Reading Swan Bay, one is quickly struck by a sense of the familiar. A damaged, misanthropic man meets a damaged, unbalanced woman. He attempts to penetrate her almost mystical reserve and, in the book’s central flashback sequence, she recounts the past that has almost destroyed her. Back in the present, the truth of her account seems uncertain. The two achieve some sort of equilibrium. This narrative outline could equally be applied to almost any of the novels of Rod Jones.
When, in 1986, Jones’s Julia Paradise was released, it was, rightly, heralded as an exciting debut from a promising new writer. The above outline largely took place in Shanghai, in a book that suggested a morphine-addled, Freud-obsessed Graham Greene. His third novel, Billy Sunday, was, if anything, even better. Jones had moved his focus to North America. Nightpictures (1997), shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, added a heightened eroticism and Venice to the patented Jones formula. The leitmotifs and narrative echoes throughout Jones’s oeuvre are, however, incidental: he is much more than a one-trick pony. Each of these novels is wonderfully written; each explores, with an unflinching eye, key themes of sex and death, life and loss, power and abuse. Jones should be counted amongst Australia’s most interesting and talented novelists. His gift lies in his ability to write with crisp clarity about the murky and the intangible; with confidence and force about the uncertain; with detachment about passion and with passion about detachment.