I’ve had the good fortune of spending most of my life working with books in one way or another—as an editor, as a writer, occasionally as a teacher. There are books all over the house, and their grasp on domestic geography reaches beyond the back door and into the garden to my studio, which was once the storeroom for a shop. Nine bookcases, one coffee table, a sofa, four desks, two filing cabinets, sundry benchtops—books in, or on, them all. (None, I should add, on the bedside table; I hate reading in bed.)
There’s a ‘sort of’ logic to all of this. One of the bookcases holds all the books I’ve edited, another has my reference books, and there are two for books I’ve collected during the researching of two novels. There’s a smallish antique piece for my smallish collection of antiquarian volumes, mostly early Western Australian publications (including a first edition of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo). They’re foxed and shabby and bear handwritten inscriptions and cryptic notes—not especially desirable, I’m told, as far as antiquarian value is concerned. But I like them that way; they have their own history. On my writing desk at the moment are John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Roget’s Thesaurus, Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, a French dictionary, and a cluster of poetry books I dip into from time to time. The books that can be seen beneath the glass top of the coffee table are the ones I haven’t read yet—stacks of them. Julienne van Loon’s Harmless and Felicity Young’s Antidote to Murder are on the top. There’s a purple-jacketed Kindle there, too, but I use that only when I’m travelling. Eventually, books migrate from the coffee table to the sofa, where I do most of my non-work-related reading.
The rest of those bookish spaces—well, that’s where the ‘sort of’ comes in. They’re sort of for everything else, and they’re sort of grouped by genre, and I know where any given title might be. Sort of.
When I think of all the voices in all the novels populating this house and studio—narrators lofty or confessional, intrusive or seductive, the sly unreliables, the ominiscients, the limiteds, the multiples—I know there has never been a voice like the one in the novel lying on my sofa right now.
I’m not playing spoiler here, I’m not giving anything away; you find out in the first few pages of Courtney Collins’s debut novel The Burial that the narrator is a baby—newly born, newly dead. The eponymous burial happens in the first chapter:
Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep. Strong though she was, she was weak from my birth, and as she dug the wind filled the hole with leaves and the rain collapsed it with mud so all that was left was a wet and spindly bed.
It’s an astonishing conceit, demanding of the reader an immediate suspension of disbelief—and prompting an immediate desire to abandon everything else and keep reading.
The Burial is an Australian gothic, the story of a female bushranging murderer cum horse thief at a time when most women rode sidesaddle. Having just given life once and taken it twice, Jessie is on the run, pursued by the new sergeant and his Aboriginal tracker. Before long, she has vigilantes on her trail too, lawless men of the mountain seeking revenge and the price on her head.
This novel manages to deliver spare dialogue and a gritty sense of a carnal, masculine world, along with the lyrical prose and musical cadences of literary fiction in its evocation of landscape. It races along at the cracking pace of suspenseful chase, and has a twist near the end that made me gasp once I realised what Collins had hidden in plain view. But it’s the narrative voice that seduced me from the beginning. Disembodied, unnamed, ungendered, it narrates past and present, beyond the logic of knowledge and language—a voice of spirit and the earth and impossible longing. The self-conscious presence of the narrator lessens as the need for it lessens, but infrequent references to ‘my mother’ kept reminding me of the ethereal frame that holds this physically grounded story. Towards the end, when the narrator feels the shuddering of horses’ hooves across the land, I swear I felt them too.
I’ve finished The Burial now, and it’s still lying on the sofa. The wrench of finishing a book that’s colonised my imagination makes me reluctant to relocate it to a new home. It may find its way to the shelves in the studio where I keep books I admire for their technical skill, that I will use in teaching aspects of craft, in the belief that the first step in acquiring writing skills is to recognise the best practice of them in others. But I’ve a feeling it will end up on a special shelf in the house, in company with titles like Sixty Lights (Gail Jones), The Shipping News (Annie Proulx) and The Travel Writer (Simone Lazaroo). This is the shelf reserved for Books I Wish I Had Written.
Amanda Curtin’s second novel, Elemental, was published by UWA Publishing on 1 May. Her previous books are The Sinkings (2008) and the short story collection Inherited (2011). New to the blogging world, she can be found at looking up/looking down.
06 May 13 at 14:31
The Burial sounds amazing – what an audacious choice for a narrative point-of-view – can’t wait!
06 May 13 at 15:35
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Annabel. It was on the Stella Prize shortlist, by the way.
11 May 13 at 14:09
Interesting! I’ve heard a few excerpts of The Burial at various readings and I think I can safely say it’s not for me. I sort of loathe Australian Gothic, though.
13 May 13 at 16:54
Then no, not for you. But thanks for reading. :–)
23 May 13 at 12:11
Well I think I will put The Burial on my pile to read, underneath Elemental of course….I love Australian Gothic – Bereft by Chris Womersley is on my pile of books I wish I had written. Thanks Amanda !
23 May 13 at 12:33
I love the idea of a ‘books I wish I had written’ shelf (or shrine). I would also need a ‘books I loathed so much I threw them’ shelf,‘the books that resonated in my 20s, 30s shelf’ and a ‘books I will read when I am a real grown up’ shelf.
23 May 13 at 12:39
‘Baby No Eyes’ by NZ writer Patricia Grace who also uses a dead baby as the narrator. Great novel.
24 May 13 at 16:15
Let me know what you think, Donna, as a fellow AustGoth aficionado. Serje: what great shelves you have! Excellent. I now need to reorganise some of mine accordingly. And thanks for the recommendation, Mary-Jane; I hadn’t heard of that one.
05 Aug 13 at 18:16
Will definitely get a copy of The Burial, it sounds wonderful. I don’t have a concept of BOOKS I WISH I’D WRITTEN. Chiefly because I know that novels like Bereft, Elemental, The Shipping News, Housekeeping are way way beyond my capabilities. And that’s okay. I can do things the authors of these novels can’t like…let me get back to you on that one! However I’ll always be eternally grateful to all these astonishing authors who make us hold our breath, capture our hearts and imagination, then release us, I like to think, as better people.