The Good Parents, Joan London’s second novel, begins with the seduction and disappearance of Maya de Jong, an eighteen-year-old who has recently moved to Melbourne from a small Western Australian town. Maya’s worried parents, Jacob and Toni, travel to Melbourne, set themselves up in her Richmond share house, and begin to search for clues to explain her absence.
The first time The Engagement’s narrator, Liese Campbell, sees the family homestead owned by her lover, Alexander Colquhoun, she is struck by its imposing physical presence: ‘We turned a corner … The second storey came into view: eight upstairs windows and each chimney intricate as a small mausoleum.’ As she surveys the isolated Victorian mansion, with its English driveways and gardens, she realises that it has ‘been built precisely so one would feel at its mercy’.
One of the things I am often called on to do as a bookseller is to make recommendations, particularly when it comes to fiction. This involves making a judgement about what a customer wants from a book, rather than what a book may want from its reader. Many readers declare from the outset that all they want from a novel is a good story they can escape into. They happily admit that they don’t want to be challenged, don’t want to work for their enjoyment.
This is the frequently offered rationale for mass-market fiction: pure escapism. It exists to entertain, not to edify. Hackneyed storylines and wooden dialogue don’t matter, so the argument goes; all that does matter is giving people the kind of uncomplicated enjoyment they crave. The writing might not be stylish, but neither is it pretentious. Fair enough, perhaps. If you are the kind of reader who sees nothing wrong with lines such as ‘a fresh spike of fear gripped him’ or ‘there was only one way to heal his thirst for revenge’ or ‘Iris has always been blindly attracted to people who don’t fit the mould’, then criticism of this book is probably redundant. If, however, mixed metaphors, clichés and melodramatic flourishes make you cringe, be warned that Fiona McIntosh’s Fields of Gold is full of them.
Literary definitions often have an indeterminate quality. To state the precise formal characteristics of the novel or the short story is almost impossible. There are some basic tenets, but these forms are fluid; open to interpretation and experimentation. Is there, then, any grounds for conceiving of the ‘long story’ as a distinct entity? Caught somewhere between two already amorphous forms, it seemingly occupies a negative space, defined by what it is not.
It is a common assumption that nothing much happens in small country towns; that they are insular places where people live their entire lives, unchallenged by the outside world. But I never found the towns I lived in to be stagnant: conservative and sometimes small-minded, yes, but never uniformly dull. Individuals and families come and go; people run away or arrive, seeking refuge; people return after years of absence to settle down again.
In the introduction to her Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990), Angela Carter considers the contrary nature of the fairy-tale form. Born of a lively oral tradition, fairy tales are not beholden to veracity, and Carter celebrates the complete lack of desire for verisimilitude in Andersen, Grimm and Perrault: ‘Once upon a time is both utterly precise and absolutely mysterious: there was a time and no time.’ Fairy tales do not beg the reader to suspend their disbelief, they baldly expect us to see the thing for what it is: a tale, a lie. It is all in the telling: which parts of the story the narrator wants to illuminate; which parts she wants to subvert or leave out completely. Carter writes of the modern preoccupation with individualising art, our cultural faith ‘in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original’, but fairy tales are not like that. They eschew permanent ownership and the responsibility that implies.
I recently went back to New England. It is a long drive from Melbourne, but as I passed through Coonabarabran and Tamworth and began the ascent up the Moonbi Ranges, my gaze responded to the strange and familiar landscape. I periodically wound down the car window to smell the air – crisp but still warm for autumn. I grew up in a few different New England towns – Inverell, Glen Innes, Armidale – so I am familiar with the territory covered in the fascinating essays in High Lean Country. The high elevation of the Tableland makes the winters cold, summers mild. The dramatic landscape is dotted with granite mounds and monoliths. It is edged to the east by the escarpment and the gorge country of Judith Wright’s poems.
Michele Gierck’s account of her years spent working as a human rights advocate in El Salvador raises the problem of how to understand other people’s lives. Early in 700 Days in El Salvador, she distinguishes between the two Spanish infinitives for the verb ‘to know’. Saber means to gain an understanding intellectually, through books or art, through a representation. Conocer is to understand by experiencing something directly, to live through it or to witness it oneself. Gierck’s passionate work on behalf of the Salvadorean peasants, or campesinos, is testament to her conviction that to conocer is truly to know. She attributes an inviolable sanctity to the stories of those on the ground, who witnessed the misery and fear in El Salvador during the decade of civil war and its equally troubled aftermath.
One of the best essays in the excellent spring issue of Griffith Review: The Next Big Thing, is a sustained attack by Griffith University academic Mark Bahnisch on the lazy clichés of ‘generation-journalism’. In an issue devoted to an examination of generational similarities and conflicts, Bahnisch calmly reminds us that not everyone living in the 1960s was a hell-raising radical, just as not all young people today fit the conservative–materialist stereotype the media is so fond of.