Sunday, June 14, 2015

Two New Australian Novels: One Excellent, One a Failure.

This is a very powerful novel that frequently brought me to tears but mostly made me intensely angry.

It interweaves the lives of four Australian women living in Melbourne from the years of the first world war until the 1990's. While very young they became pregnant to young men who deserted them or treated them cruelly. Their parents were no better, imprisoned by the moral, social and legal strictures of the day. They were also battling poverty and unemployment.

Single motherhood was an absolute no-no. Marriage was compulsory, or the baby forcibly removed for adoption. The story of Anna, a feisty teenager brought undone by the Salvation Army's excruciatingly awful 'home for girls in your situation' is one of the most moving and dramatic pieces of social history you're ever likely to read. It will make your blood boil.

Jones brings his characters vividly to life. His writing is measured and assured, the stories tense and deeply emotional.

No doubt this wonderful book will be shortlisted for a number of awards, and deservedly so. It is magnificent. It will also become a celebrated ABC TV mini-series, no doubt.

Steven Carroll's last book, The World of Other People, was the co-winner of the Prime Minister's Literary Award in 2014, and deservedly so. I heaped praise on it here calling it 'a very fine work indeed. Subtle, nuanced, immeasurably sad and well worth the PM's prize.'

So I approached his just published Forever Young with high expectations, despite knowing that it was not another in his T.S.Eliot series. Unfortunately I was badly let down. 

The novel is the fifth in Carroll's 'Glenroy' series about the lives of ordinary Australians in ordinary suburban Melbourne. You don't have to have read the previous four to fully appreciate this one, as it includes so many reflections and memories of those earlier times and events that flesh out the characters and place them in context.

The setting is 1977, the year that Whitlam, for the second time, lost the election to Fraser, and then retired from politics altogether. This is presented as a 'moving on' for the country, a loss of its youth, a loss of the 'Mountain' for young people, a government that belonged to them.

The problem with the novel, quite frankly, is that it's boring. Carroll never succeeds in breaking through the banality and ordinariness of his theme of lost youth and idealism, and the moving on and settling and never being able to return.

And his writing style, previously and constantly praised by critics as being 'unfailingly assured, lyrical, poised' (Debra Adelaide) and 'astonishingly assured' (James Bradley), fundamentally lets him down this time. His habit of constantly repeating phrases becomes tiresome in the extreme. It feels as if he's got his boot on your throat and is pressing down harder. The same phrases are on an endless loop, para after para. What is meant to be a ruminative reiteration simply amplifies the banality of the theme. 

For the fact is this book is about nothing much at all. Young people growing old and, er, changing - moving on, escaping, discovering, making mistakes. Carroll brings to this familiar dynamic a leaden sensibility. 

Thankfully there are moments of genuine narrative tension and genuinely good writing. In the main, though, they are overwhelmingly buried.

Which makes this novel very hard to recommend, and will deny it the success Steven Carroll otherwise deserves.