It’s been nine years since I first read Gilgamesh. In that time, my Teflon memory shed all trace of the book’s plot, characters and milieu. But there remained a resonance: some twanged recollection of feeling that I associated with the novel. For all I knew, that twang owed as much to how I’d read Gilgamesh—my mood, my age, what I’d read before it—as to the book itself. How often do we revisit a warmly remembered book, only to find there’s nothing there for us anymore?
The fact that the novel looks different now (Michaela McGuire is right: the cover pic on the Vintage edition is a shocker, a pastel-and-sepia nostalgia job) deepened the sense of distance from my original reading of it. Pretty soon though it came back to me what it was that had gripped me the first time.
It’s not Joan London’s characters that carry the novel. Even Edith, even Leopold, let alone the elusive Aram—they’re barely inked-in. London gives us the world, not through Edith’s eyes (the novel’s told in the third-person) but as Edith might have perceived it. Raised hungry and fearful in a back-blocks shack, she escapes into the wide world—London, Armenia, the Middle East—not knowing exactly what it is she’s seeing, lacking a point of reference.
Edith is an odd mix of downtroddenness and determination, of practicality and heedlessness. She’s one of those characters in fiction and film that suffers, I think, from being too transparently a device: a kind of weakly charged magnet around which characters and events assemble themselves in the loose shape of a story. The way in which stronger characters are drawn to her, react to her, sometimes overstrains the reader’s—well, my—credulity.
But what drives Edith is what drives Gilgamesh and made it resonate down the years for me: a sense of longing. The dissolving shadow under the door. Edith’s quest, ostensibly for the father of her child, clarifies itself around her cousin Leopold and then… she lets it go. The real beauty for me of Joan London’s novel is where Edith’s longing takes her: to finding satisfaction in inexactness, in imperfection, in the commonplace. The novel’s penultimate paragraphs reads:
She shrugged. The shrug said what she didn’t tell him, because that was their way with one another, that for her the great adventure now was to stay.
A great deal goes unspoken in Gilgamesh. And that’s its strength. It lets the reader in.
If Joan London sketches with a few bent lines and the suggestion of shade, Kate Grenville colours-in right to the edge of the page. Coming to The Secret River after Gilgamesh’s shrugged conclusion is startling, like plunging from sepia into vivid 3-D technicolour.
Grenville’s sumptuous language and imagery, her loving characterisations and the certainty that drives her novel envelop the reader from the start. If sometimes her powers of observation verge on exhausting, well, doesn’t the story justifies it?
Where they lived, down close to the river, the alleyways were no more than a stride across, and dimmed even on the brightest day by the buildings packed in hugger-mugger. On every side it was nothing but brick walls and chimneys, cobblestones and mouldering planks where old whitewash marked the grain. There were the terraces of low-browed houses hunched down on themselves, growing out of the very dirt they sat on, and after them the tanneries, the shambles, the glue factories, the malting, filling the air with their miasmas.
Set in the first decade of the nineteenth century, The Secret River is ripe with sights and situations novel to her characters and readers alike. And to Grenville herself, one senses. That this novel grew out of her own family’s history is borne out by the author’s sense of wonder and exultation at the shape of her lead characters’ lives and what they (she?) made of them. Grenville exposes subtleties in her characters that show just how well she grasps the possibilities that colonial life offered. Ex-convict William Thornhill, five years in the colony, has two convict servants assigned to him. One turns out to have been a childhood friend of his; and there and then Thornhill, who’s lived so low that he’s wearing his first pair of boots, has to step up and claim the role of master. To his friend-turned-servant’s greeting ‘Why, Will Thornhill, is it?'—
Thornhill spoke as mildly as a man might who has nothing to prove. Forgetting your manners are you, Dan Oldfield, he said[…] It is Mr Thornhill, Dan, he said. You would do well to remember.
I read The Secret River when it was first released, in 2005. And my field being history, I followed with interest the controversy over what some historians claimed were the liberties Grenville had taken with the known and unknowable facts of indigenous-settler relations. Re-reading the book now, of course I harboured an awareness of what her critics had said and what she had replied. So…
I wanted to like The Secret River more than I did—than I do. What I have called the novel’s certainty tips too soon into portentousness. And for all Grenville’s goodwill, and more than goodwill, towards her indigenous characters, she hews to the stereotype of the noble savage, the dark man in the shadows.
Kate Grenville is a superb writer and there is much to be enjoyed and admired in The Secret River. But in a contest between overwrought and understated, I choose Gilgamesh.
Ben: Here we are in the semi-finals, and it seems only yesterday that we were saying to ourselves, ‘tomorrow is the first semi-final’. Here is where the Tournament of Books gets exciting, as the elite among Australian literature sink their teeth into each other and spill wordy blood in the pursuit of the ultimate prize. Leading off in this first SF is Gilgamesh, an epic novel that we have come to know as a friend throughout this tournament, a rambling, geographically disparate friend. But it is only here, in the white-hot heat of semi-final action, that we see Gilgamesh’s true weakness exposed.
‘It’s not Joan London’s characters that carry the novel,’ writes Annear, and this must have struck fear into the hearts of all Gilgamesh fans, or Gilgameshuggenahs, as they are known—for if your characters don’t carry your novel, what else do you have? It’s like a cricket team without a solid opening partnership—you’re always starting behind the eight-ball. So in that sense it’s more like snooker. But whether you prefer cricket metaphors or snooker ones, there’s no doubt that at that moment I worried for Gilgamesh. I thought, if the characters refused to do the heavy lifting, would the rest of the novel be able to hold up under the strain? Would the dizzying array of settings and resonant sense of longing make up for Edith’s unforgivable device-ness? Particularly in face of The Secret River’s feroicous onslaught of colonialism? For as you know, Jess, The Secret River is an elite performer in its own right.
Jess: You’re absolutely correct, Benjamin… I am all too aware of The Secret River’s spectacular past performances. Kate Grenville’s piece of historical fiction has been a powerful force in this competition and has managed to overwhelm acclaimed Australian novels like A Kindness Cup and The Man Who Loved Children in earlier rounds of the Meanjin Tournament Of Books—certainly no mean feat. But it’s beginning to seem as though all the Gilgameshuggenahs out there might be in for a real treat as we edge closer to the grand final, because Joan London’s reworked epic is simply pounding all its rivals into submission as it juggernauts through each stage.
Annear says that “coming to The Secret River after Gilgamesh’s shrugged conclusion is startling, like plunging from sepia into vivid 3-D technicolour” which I suppose means that Joan London is Lars von Trier to Kate Grenville’s James Cameron. Except, you know, in our crazy world Lars von Trier makes unsinkable blockbusters and James Cameron is probably working on a musical drama starring Bjork.
Ben: And indeed, Bjork SHOULD be in more movies. Alas, the movie industry, just like the Tournament of Books itself, lacks sufficient Bjork. But Gilgamesh overcomes even this handicap. Annear’s description put me in mind of the Wizard of Oz, and the scene where Dorothy’s monochrome world suddenly becomes full of colour as she becomes aware that she is now a murderer. But the funny thing is, in this case the old colourless Kansas proves more enticing than the brightly-hued Oz. Which is partly because London has grounded her Kansas in solid storytelling and a really evocative sense of cornfields, and partly because Grenville over-egged her Munchkins. I mean this in a metaphorical sense of course—just as London meant “Gilgamesh” in a metaphorical sense. I identify strongly with Joan London as you know, and I’m quite glad to see her plough onwards, although one can’t help but feel for Kate Grenville, seemingly striding towards victory with her surefire strategy of racial tensions and less-than-obvious waterways, only to see the official rear up with the red card and relegate her to the also-rans of book tournamentry. It is a sad business.
Jess: Not as sad as a Czech immigrant single mother with a degenerative eye disease tearily singing heartbreaking renditions of songs from The Sound Of Music into an air vent though, am I right? So it’s another win for Lars von T… I mean, Joan London! Once again, the author Ben Pobjie apparently associates himself with has put another notch in her victory belt. We’ll next see Gilgamesh in the zombie round, a bout that promises to be wildly entertaining AND utterly terrifying to watch! That’s my kind of fight.