Reviewed: Limberlost, Robbie Arnott, Text Publishing
Robbie Arnott’s third novel, Limberlost, begins by describing a whale that has gone mad and is destroying fishing boats. Some locals postulate that the whale’s aggression stems from it having been harpooned in the brain, while others suggest that the whale is seeking vengeance for a pod that was harpooned.
This is a bold opening for a book, conjuring as it does a rich literary tradition, one that most obviously includes Moby-Dick. But as the extensive epigraphs to that novel attest, Melville’s invocation of the whale has plenty of literary antecedents. And, as Melville and his precursors also show, the whale is a rich source of symbolism. Often, the whale is a cipher for a dark truth or impulse hidden from view, swimming in the murky depths of the psyche. In other cases, it is simply a whale.
The question posed right at the outset, then, is this: what kind of book is Limberlost? What kind of whale does it contain? I do not propose to answer the question here because one of the joys of Arnott’s novel is that the story of the whale, like many other events both large and small, unfurl slowly across the course of the novel, and are seen in different lights each time they re-emerge.
At least on the surface, the plot is simple enough. Ned West is a fifteen-year-old boy living on his father’s apple orchard, Limberlost, in Tasmania. His two elder brothers are away, having been conscripted to fight in the Second World War. His sister has just returned to the farm after studying in Hobart. He has no memory of his mother, who died shortly after giving birth to him. His life revolves around hunting rabbits, whose pelts he sells, hoping to save up the money for a boat.
Readers of Arnott’s first two novels, Flames and The Rain Heron, will notice that the magic realism of those two novels is absent here, although a somewhat mythic tone remains. It is also more overtly Australian than The Rain Heron, a novel set in a dystopia that was probably Australia but was never named and did not need to be. Here, the landscape Arnott describes with lyrical precision is unmistakably Tasmanian.
Arnott’s attention to place is a common thread throughout his novels, as is the centrality of interactions between humans and animals. What makes him a compelling explorer of this timeworn subject is that he is drawn both to nature’s beauty and its ugliness. He does not spare gruesome details—readers of earlier novels will recall aggressive orca attacks and a mythical bird’s penchant for eating eyeballs. This novel, too, is sometimes violent—much of that violence is committed by Ned against rabbits—and provides a counterweight to the beauty of Arnott’s descriptions of the trees and the river at Limberlost. Consider, for example, his description of Ned dreaming about diving: ‘[…] thrashing through the current’s nag, thorns in his eyes, choke in his neck, ugly strokes pulling him to the dark sand, to coldness and cleanness’; ugliness and beauty intermingle in the same sentence.
Arnott can be sentimental, but he is not saccharine—his ability to write sublimely about nature has never been in doubt. But what characterises Limberlost as a triumph is how the author manages to illustrate the simple poignancy of human drama. The novel’s chronology dips in and out, creating a kind of tapestry of Ned’s life, the full significance of which can only be seen once the threads draw together. In this sense, the relevant literary comparisons are not Melville or even Arnott’s earlier work but rather Flaubert’s A Simple Heart or Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life.
Yet, in a quiet but unmistakable way, Limberlost is doing something more than ennobling a life lived simply. It is also (and here Arnott departs from Flaubert and Seethaler) exploring the implications of history and politics on such a life. Ned is not a political man, but towards the end of the novel he is challenged by the implications of living apolitically. History circumscribes the choices we can make and, as the novel demonstrates, the smallest decisions can have lifelong consequences. Smooth surfaces may hide the leviathans swimming underneath.