Review: Rosemary Sorensenon Fiona Capp

An island of sanity: Gotland by Fiona Capp

The narrator in Fiona Capp’s Gotland is very present. Within a couple of pages, her point of view is well-established, paragraphs beginning often with the first-person-singular pronoun. This does not have to be the case in a first-person narrative. Think of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2011) or Ian McEwen’s Atonement (2001), whose narrators think they are telling stories about those around them, but gradually reveal themselves through their self-justifying assessments of others. Such unreliable narrators create layers of story. The surface is gradually consumed by the sub-stratas, and the reader sees the underside of the narrative before the narrator.

Capp’s protagonist, Esther Chatwin, also tells a story about those around her, including her husband David and her sister Rosalind, but she is as reliable as they come. The sentence and paragraph structures make this very clear from the start. ‘I smiled at their upturned faces,’ she says about her class of preps at the school where she teaches. ‘I pressed the button on the CD player,’ she continues, explaining how she spends her time in the classroom – where, we are told, she feels more herself and more confident than out in the world, where she is prone to debilitating panic attacks. A few paragraphs later, she tells us why she is getting the children to draw and write about a favourite place: ‘Above all, I wanted the children to realise that these places could be visited at will, regardless of whether they actually existed or had changed utterly.’ As the children go about their task, with a raptness Esther loves to watch, she remembers a moment when Kate – her and David’s child – was younger. ‘I thought back to when Kate was four,’ she says, and remembers how the child would draw to calm herself against fear – anticipating how the teenage Kate will use graffiti to allay her anxieties, even though she knows the risks.

This scene, dated at the chapter’s head ‘July 2010, Melbourne’, prepares us not only for the event that will lead to Esther’s husband becoming Prime Minister, but also for the kind of narrator Esther will be. Gotland is a memoir-like novel that shuttles between Melbourne in July and October 2010, and the Swedish island of Gotland in September of that year, where Esther’s sick sister, Rosalind, witnesses Esther’s life-changing and possibly life-saving encounter with the sculptor Sven. Organised so as to dissipate the reader’s curiosity about where the story is going (we know almost from the start that David becomes Prime Minister and that Esther finds solace and help with her panic attacks in her dangerous liaison with Sven), the structure also supports the sense of Esther’s reliability. She is organised: this is not a narrative that unfolds as it happens, in which the narrator tries to make sense of sometimes dramatic events. This is a woman pacing the gallery of her life, stopping here to explain this portrait, then directing our gaze there, to a portrait that shows another moment of her life, asking us to share with her the understanding she has gained of what happened to her and why.

This is why ‘I’ dominates the opening pages. If there is any questioning of Esther’s responses to the events that engulf her soon after that moment in the classroom, it will come first from her, this woman who describes herself as someone much happier looking than being seen. She is a contemplative and philosophical narrator, too. When she moves to Gotland in the second chapter, a couple of months after the death of the Leader of the Opposition has thrown David into the role (and made him almost certain to become Prime Minister in the looming election), she begins not with a description of this island in the Baltic Sea, but with a short interrogation of the forms of love.

In the long paragraph that opens the second chapter there is not an ‘I’ in sight. Esther, sounding sensible and confident, if wistful, addresses her reader: ‘We are not taught, when we are young, that there are forms of love for which there are no names,’ she says. ‘That love for a person might be inseparable from love of the place where they live … Or that love for a place might be inseparable from your memories of a loved one who introduced you to it, who sensed that you were in need of it.’ The Swedish island, with its guttural name suggesting for English speakers both epiphany and capture (although it is actually a short version of Gothland), is ‘above all’ a state of mind, Esther tells us. We then move from this generalised view back to the first-person account. Gotland provides Esther with ‘a breathing space within this strange life I find myself leading, a space that keeps me sane’. So early in the novel, then, we can stop guessing about where the story is going, and stay close to this woman, whose steady account has the controlled pace of a confession.

Gotland is Capp’s fourth novel, following Night Surfing (1996), which was grounded in her passion for the sea, the tragic Last of the Sane Days (1999), and a historical novel, Musk & Byrne (2008). Her non-fiction, including That Oceanic Feeling (2003) and her homage to Judith Wright My Blood’s Country (2010), reveals her intense interest in not just story but why we are interested in stories, which consider the finest and most difficult aspects of humanity. While Gotland is simply told, its ideas are big ones. One theme is how the demands of public life run counter to the trust that is important to successful relationships, but Capp underlines that the novel is as much a love story as a story about politics and power by placing this early chapter, so explicitly about love – both the idea of it and the actuality – at a pivotal moment in her narrator’s account. Esther is about to return to Australia after a week on Gotland, now with a new love to keep her ‘sane’. She is as overwhelmed as any love-struck teenager. ‘With his face so close,’ she says during the final hours of her week on the island, ‘I was stuck once again by the sheer fact of his presence. And of the island itself. And of all the years during which we knew nothing of each other.’

Capp has written an essay about her stay at a Writers Centre in Visby, on Gotland, where Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky filmed The Sacrifice in 1986. She wrote about how Australia, in that film, was an almost unimaginable otherplace, somewhere those characters who yearned to escape chose to daydream about. For Capp’s unhappy narrator, the opposite becomes true: Gotland is Esther’s real otherland. It is remote from those things she needs to escape from in suburban Melbourne and, later, at the political centre of the country at the Lodge in Canberra.

Politicians don’t often figure as characters in Australian novels, unless in comic novels or thrillers, or both. Andrew McGahan’s angry, dazzling Underground (2006), with its outlandish scenario of an Australian Prime Minister selling out the country at a moment when terrorism has society gripped in a state of hysterical moral paralysis, is what you could call a contemporary fable. McGahan’s narrative, seen through the eyes of the Prime Minister’s dodgy brother, was shot through with allusions that made what was being described seem possible but, the reader hoped, improbable.

Capp’s story, by contrast, contains very little humour, and no hint of satire. This reduces the temptation to see real-life parallels in Esther and David’s story of an idealistic couple thrown apart by his ambition and her diffidence. An anarchist academic from inner-city Melbourne with a schoolteacher wife, an elegant man with powerful speech-making abilities who is driven not just by ambition but ideals, someone offered what he sees as the gift of trying to make a difference when his mentor dies suddenly – you would have to look very hard to find a match with real politicians. And almost all possibilities for reading this novel as a roman à clef or playing a game of spot-the-reference to recent political history are ruled out by the sometimes explicitly articulated gender-specific issues confronting Esther.

One of the queries at the core of Gotland– what would it be like to be a political spouse? – is refined to become, pointedly, what would it be like to be a political wife? Capp is interested in women’s roles, and their desires. When Esther is tossed out of her beloved classroom by the political wave that breaks over her little family, she is cheered on by the school community. All of them, from the littlies to the principal, are chuffed to be so near to someone who is so near to someone so important. When what has happened to one of their teachers is announced at assembly, Esther is horrified at the attention, but is able to analyse it with her characteristic lucidity:

The problem is that I was me, and the shoes the prince had slipped on my feet didn’t really fit. They were too big. And they were stilettos. Surely it was only a matter of time before I tripped and fell.

Esther sees herself as not the right kind of woman to be the consort of a leader. And she goes further: she questions why women complain about losing even consort-status as they grow old:

Women my age [Esther is in her mid-50s] complain of being invisible, say that no one sees them any more, whether they are waiting to be served in a shop or simply walking along the street. As if they’ve slipped into a grey zone, a no-woman’s land where people, especially men, look straight through them. Too often, it seems to me, we overlook the benefits of not being noticed. Of being free to quietly do what we please. The liberating anonymity.

This points to something that is going to happen on Gotland, when by chance a schoolfriend crosses Esther’s path when she is with Sven. Even in Gotland, her anonymity is compromised. For a shy woman, this is a cruel outcome of her decision to marry a man whose idealism she loves. But while you could imagine a hairdresser, say, finding the limelight difficult, Capp makes it clear through her reliable, if stressed, narrator that this is not so much about gender inequality as it is about role definition. The story suggests that a man should not become less of a husband when he becomes the most important politician in the country, and that a wife should not have to negate herself, and her needs and desires, for the sake of a cause.

And yet, at the same time, this novel, published smack bang in the middle of a soap-operatic episode in Australian politics, demands to be read as a commentary on contemporary society. A scene in which a journalist and photographer pursue Esther and David into a restaurant and demand an interview with a ruthless lack of social, if not ethical, propriety allows Capp to comment, through Esther, on the state of journalism. When Kate gets caught spray-painting graffiti in a public place, it provides an opportunity for Capp, through Esther, to consider the way that self-expression falls foul of the commodification of art. And by imagining a character such as Jasper, David’s natty campaign manager, Capp invites us to think about the commodification of power and whether sincerity can survive in the current climate.

The novel does all this around its central nub. It begins and ends with the love-struck Esther gazing with intense heart-thumping emotion at Sven. It takes until almost the final chapter to consummate this attraction, and ‘I’ is everywhere again, at the place where Esther finally feels as though she has sloughed off the cloak of invisibility, and filled up the chasm of anxiety she has lived with all her life. Invited to bed, she answers no. She then describes herself

bending to kiss him with a confidence I didn’t know I possessed. A long deep kiss that told him all he needed to know. Even as I kissed him I marvelled at this other Esther, who was so certain of herself, who was so unafraid of what kind of lover she might be or the parts of her body that might sag. ‘Put some more wood on the fire. I like it here.’

In the novel’s final pages, there are a couple of twists and turns that take us beyond the opening chapters and pull together the weave of the novel’s fabric. Esther’s life at the Lodge brings us back to the theme of the scrutiny of public figures, and raises the question of whether idealism can survive the falseness of political life. With Sven and his island as her ‘Gotland’, Esther has her ‘place everyone needs’: that sane place she talked about at the beginning of her narrative.

Has she gained our trust, this most unlikely of Prime Ministers’ wives? She is certainly reliable: even in the telling of her panic episodes, she is steady. When she confronts the man she married and asks him if it is possible to do things differently and ‘take some kind of stand’, it is impossible not to admire her and hope that she and David can succeed. But then, she is a schoolteacher, and this manner infuses her narration more deeply than that of the sensual and free-thinking lover she finds herself to be.

What is missing from Esther’s narrative, I think, is irony. When she says ‘I’, she means it, no question. There is no room for the quivering reflections that an unreliable narrator sets in play in the reader’s mind. When there is a lapse between what is happening and Esther’s understanding of it – such as when she realises that her sister was hoping to rekindle her relationship with Sven and that Esther’s rapport with the sculptor is therefore bitter for Rosalind – she tells us immediately what is coming, alerting us to the fact she should have seen it earlier herself. The outcome of this absence of irony is that steadiness of tone I have mentioned. Despite her self-diagnosed vulnerability, and despite finding herself on a brightly lit stage where she is asked to perform a role for which she believes herself unfit, Esther is an admirable character. But she is cool and distant. It is almost as if we are being asked to stand back, not identify with her, so as to better consider the questions about power and responsibility on the public and private level, which are posed in the novel. But then there is that unabashed love story, told with guileless simplicity and quite a deal of sensual delight.

A quote from psychotherapist Adam Phillips’ book Monogamy (1996) is set at the beginning of Gotland: ‘Because erotic life rearranges the world it is political.’ The two parts of that definition – erotic life and politics – don’t quite fuse in Gotland, and as a result the novel’s narrator seems unresolved. That is part of Esther’s character, but it also means her analyses, both of eroticism and politics, are sketched more lightly than such an intriguing scenario warrants.