I’ve heard of that place, Australia. There are even some memories that persist of it as a discrete, identifiable object. It was a thing taught to me in primary school in jovial, unambiguous ways. It was a series of tales of sheep, and rushes of gold, and the bushranging bloke with a metal bucket on his head. It played cricket against the West Indies. It was precisely 200 years old and we dressed as convicts and walked down the town’s main street to celebrate this fact. All incompleteness and lies that I felt disconnected from then, as I do now.
I don’t know where the solidity of Australia is hidden. I want this sensation of connection to place that I hear others speak of with such certainty. Of recognising and being recognised by the localities of their families, ancestors, of their people. Or of breaking free of these and building a place of one’s own. I hear of others feeling tethered to the earth, and I am envious. The search for this impression of home seems a primal one.
Barbara Hanrahan, The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973)
The writing, prints and paintings of Barbara Hanrahan form a body of work that is of a complexity and beauty to match that of any artist this country has more readily laid claim to. In The Scent of Eucalyptus, Hanrahan’s first novel, she builds on autobiography to describe a childhood of the 1940s and 1950s in suburban Adelaide. The author and narrator were raised and centred within the trinity of Ronda, Iris Pearl and Reece: mother, grandmother and great-aunt. William had died only one year after his transfiguration into father. The first chapter has us crossing a railway line and tramping through waist-high grass to his cemetery:
I stood before the slab that bore his name—and it was my name. I gazed at the letters and they were grimed with dirt (the railway was very near). The willows were too—and was he ever a lover, ever my father? But I swept away abstraction—made it bearable and related him to me. For by being my father he lived a life—didn’t he? He did that anyway—didn’t he? But died.
In revisiting these lines, it is this wish to sweep away abstraction that speaks loudest and it seems now the great intent of the work. From the outset she invites abstraction, asks unknowable questions, and from this makes something permanent and examinable.
Based on diaries Hanrahan kept as an adult living in London, the story presents as a series of memories and half-dreams that connect in an overhanging, natural way. It tells of a child growing into the ambivalences of maturity. It’s a story of rebelling against a ‘kewpie doll model of femininity’1 she saw in the maternal figures of her household, while finding comfort and meaning within the walls and garden of their Rose Street home. The acutely poetic style of Hanrahan’s prose is built with scientific efficiency to generate an accurate description of a rich external and emotional habitat:
As a child and ever after, the minute, hidden facets of things intrigued me. I was for ever walking with my head bent, looking at the ground. I saw an ant picking its way across the earth … I saw the pleated linings of mushrooms, tomatoes ruffled by stars, carrots hung with tassels. I forgot the mould that flecked the lemon, maggots in the bin, dead flowers that smelt of ponds.
This novel is part of my vision of this country because as much as discovering the blurring edges of herself, Hanrahan is finding the obscure nature of the place around her. These things that exist as agreed-upon stories: family, suburbia, Australia:
But where were the hills of the history book, stitched with the pathways of Burke and Sturt and Leichhardt?—the hills of the sun-burned earth and budgerigar grass, and azure skies and fiery mountains we sang about at school before the flag spangled with all the stars of the Southern Cross I was never sure of seeing? … I looked about me for the sunburned land. In vain.
Andrew McGahan, Last Drinks (2000)
The albums of the Beatles are said to capture within their progression popular music’s evolution, from the purely entertaining ‘Love Me Do’ to the near total abstraction of ‘Revolution 9’. Cousin to this, the novels of Andrew McGahan present an expansive vision of how words can describe a world. Praise (1992) and its twin 1988 (1998) place us deeply in the personal and physical, even as their central characters do all they can to numb themselves. His most recent work for adults, Wonders of a Godless World (2009), is a unique and exceptional search for consciousness through a story told without names or speech. It is, though, the waypoint between these extremes, Last Drinks (2000), that is the nearest to my heart and which captures a privately significant version of Australia.
In simplest terms it is a crime novel: it begins with a murder, and an investigation leads to an understanding of the death’s particulars. It is also the story of Brisbane, its underworld and the tangles of corruption that led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry. It is the story of how a person continues to tolerate a life in which they no longer recognise themselves or the place that surrounds them. Alcohol is a protective fog around the novel’s protagonist, George Verney—disgraced newspaper man and criminal bit-player. George discovers an old address book and his experience of thumbing through its pages describes just as well my reading of Last Drinks:
I sat by the phone, carefully parted the covers, and stared at the pages. It was like time travel, looking directly ten years into the past, more than ten years. My handwriting seemed somehow bigger, old-fashioned, not mine at all. But every-thing was still there. Names and places and numbers. Offices. Restaurants. Bars. Page after page of it. It was as if I could even smell the beer again. The long heady rush that filled my days …
The unravelling, sordid Brisbane of this novel’s past is that of my childhood. I experienced it then through ABC News, Courier Mail headlines, and the parts of the story I pleaded with my parents to decode and explain. This novel too gives us a story of missing parts. Survival, here, requires a kind of unearned forgiveness of the past. This is a kind of Australia.
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (2013)
There are extraordinary ways in which the universe of The Swan Book has been removed from an obvious present. Set a century in the future, it presents a planet beset by climate wars. Respecting no split between the literal and the mythical, poetry is allowed to become real. Swans gather to protect Oblivia, the story’s mute central character, who is first found among the roots of a gum tree. It is a place far away but, of course, it is exactly here.
The voice is a concentrated conflation of languages, legends, cultures, songs. It is virtuosic and all entirely necessary. Wright is telling a story that is difficult and true and whose roots run deeper than any other. From the opening we are taken to this miraculous, inciting place:
Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house. Little stars shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky. The crazy virus just sits there on the couch and keeps a good old qui vive out the window for intruders.
We go with Oblivia from a trapped community in a swamp of broken boats and knowing animals. She is to marry Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia. We go south, to the city: to a futured, contemporary Australia. It is a novel about the governing and protection of stories, thought and land. It is about knowing home, and makes urgent demands for the future of all life. Late in the novel, Wright has the monkey, Rigoletto, angry at Oblivia and getting to the heart of things:
He swallowed a lot of water from screaming his lungs out for nothing in all forms of language. Swallowed language. Moral language. Peace and harmony language. Religious language. Angry language. Law language. Culture language. Political language. Enthusiastic language. Monkey language. The wings of language will never again fly so triumphantly in the soulless country.
These three books make up a picture of Australia; that place I earlier claimed not to recognise. This was a lie, of course. Or more generously an evasion. Perhaps Australia is a difficult, unknowable thing, and perhaps some of us won’t ever shake that feeling of disconnection. But we’re here and we’re alive and this comes with duties. To sweep away abstraction; to decode and explain; to respond to urgent demands. •
Note: This piece was written before the sad passing of Andrew McGahan on 1 February 2019.
Robert Lukins is a writer who lives in Melbourne. He has worked as an art researcher and journalist. The Everlasting Sunday (UQP) is his first novel.
- Sue Thomas, ‘Writing the Self: Barbara Hanrahan’s The Scent of Eucalyptus’, Kunapipi, vol. 11, no. 3, 1989, <http://ro.uow.edu.au/kunapipi/vol11/iss3/13>.