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Michael Meehan

Subtler in its purring resonances than the cello and more closely resembling the human form in its body, the viola da gamba was cultivated to its greatest heights in the court of Louis XIV. The great virtuoso Marin Marais will be the most familiar name for any who are acquainted with this instrument, but two later figures of equal ability were Antoine Forqueray and his son, Jean-Baptiste. Tumultuous in their relationship, they become the rather unexpected subject of a compelling new novel by Michael Meehan. 

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'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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Deception by Michael Meehan

October 2008, no. 305

Deception is an historical novel that adds to the emergent school of literary fiction concerned with dramatising historical investigation. As with any subgenre, certain conventions abide. The protagonist tends to be male, dour, a bit of a loner. His quest is usually sparked by a relic of some kind: a cache of letters, a photograph. Ultimately, history is shown to impinge on the present; the musty conundrums surrounding the relic are resolved; the protagonist may experience a vague epiphany.

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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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