Review: Sophia Barneson Ceridwen Dovey

Excavating the Past: Ceridwen Dovey’s Garden of the Fugitives

In the Garden of the Fugitives is Ceridwen Dovey’s second novel, and her third book-length publication. Her debut Blood Kin was published in 2007, followed in 2014 by the short story collection Only the Animals. These three very different works, each with their layers of interwoven stories, voices now in concert, now in conflict, attest to the originality of Dovey’s conceptually complex writing.

Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, Blood Kin commanded critical attention on publication. Fragmentary and layered in structure, it depicts the aftermath of a political coup in an unnamed country through the eyes of those whom circumstance has brought too close to the deposed president. The entwined stories of his barber, his chef and his portrait painter are followed in the novel’s second half by those of the barber’s lover, the chef’s daughter, and the painter’s heavily pregnant wife. Each of these figures is finely drawn, their stories calibrated to capture the violence and desperation of a country in collapse. Dovey is uncompromising in her portrayal of the self-interest and wilful blindness of which humans are capable: what chaos and opportunity might bring out in us; what lengths we might go to to survive and to thrive, and what unrealised motivations might shape our lives.

In Only the Animals, Dovey brought together a quite different chorus of voices in a series of stories written from the perspective of different animals, each packed with literary, cultural and historical points of reference. Among the narrators are a camel travelling through the Australian outback with Henry Lawson; Himmler’s loyal dog telling the story of his rejection by the owner he adores; Colette’s cat, maintaining her haughty dignity in the trenches; a military dolphin explaining the story of his death to Sylvia Plath; and a mussel making his way across America from coast to coast, in the footsteps and style of Kerouac. It is a sharp, intelligent, often humorous collection, a joyful experiment with form that contains much moving reflection on the failure of humans to appreciate what we might erroneously call the ‘humanity’ of our fellow animals.

Running through Dovey’s fictions is an interest in the intersection of politics with the everyday, from the sometimes unexpected intrusions of the one into the other, to the questions of culpability that the ignorance of a populace raises – and whether our participation in or resistance to a system of repression is conscious or unconscious. Where do our responsibilities as citizens of the countries into which we are born, or to which we immigrate, lie? What is the relationship of our identity as citizens to the atrocities committed in our country’s name? Where do good intentions – or simple apathy, or impotence – collide with our participation in a system of violence? Many of these questions are intimately woven into the fabric of In the Garden of the Fugitives, as Vita, a South-African born immigrant to Australia, who has spent time as a graduate student in the United States, struggles to define not only her connection to the country of her birth, but her role as an artist – a documentary filmmaker – in exploring that connection.

It is her promise as a student filmmaker which brings her to the attention of Royce, wealthy founder of the Lushington Foundation, named, as we learn later, for the unrequited love of his youth, Kitty Lushington. The novel adopts an epistolary form, its narrative unfolding in the letters which pass back and forth between Vita, now in her forties and living in Mudgee, and Royce, her onetime benefactor and sometime antagonist, now nearing the end of his life at home in Boston. While the precise nature of their relationship is not entirely clear, we soon detect an ambiguous and shifting power dynamic between them – as now one, now the other, seems to have the upper hand. Royce initiates the conversation, but Vita has her own motives for re-engaging with him. Dovey deftly sets up the stakes of their communication with one another after an extended period of silence; there is as much hidden here as there is confessed.

While Vita and Royce are our dual narrators, each exists in a particular kind of solitude, with the shadow of significant others lingering at the boundaries of the text – for Royce, it is Kitty; for Vita, we are not quite sure. Love, possession, obsession and even imitation are all at play here, and the spaces between them become more blurred as the discrete yet interlinked stories of the correspondents unfold. Neither seems entirely to belong anywhere, each having followed the paths of others rather than forging their own at crucial points in their lives; having sought inspiration, or absolution, across cultures and oceans. What draws these two different people back together, then, from their homes on opposite sides of the world? The answer to this question is more difficult to answer than the explanations they offer to one another in the novel’s opening sections might suggest. We cannot take these explanations at face value – and a reader of Dovey’s other work will recognise the skill with which she balances what is said by her characters against how they behave; what they claim their motivations to be against what they finally desire.

It is clear enough that whatever relationship of need exists between the older man and the younger woman – patron and artist that they once were – has changed over time. Who holds the power now, and what kind of power they hold, is not clear; nor is it stable throughout. Royce is pleading, indulgent – yet he is also patronising, his implied knowledge of Vita’s present life ever-so-faintly threatening. For her part, Vita is initially acerbic in her replies, occasionally cruel, hoping to shock – describing the sexual acts of years past in intimate detail designed not to titillate but to provoke. She acquiesces to the correspondence for her own reasons, and keeps her own counsel. As the book progresses the letters become intersected streams of consciousness, one occasionally picking up a theme from the other, but more often continuing to revelations that the reader senses must come, but which are never signposted too clearly. Eventually Royce and Vita cease even to address one another; each penning a mea culpa, each begging forgiveness – though not necessarily of one another. The antagonism which exists between Royce and Vita, albeit much more strongly on her part, underpins the way in which they write against one another as much as to one another, as by turns they confess and excuse, plead and rebuff.

Vita was the recipient of a generous scholarship from the Lushington Foundation that allowed her to pursue her filmmaking not only during university but after her studies. How can Vita reject Royce’s invitations to dinner, or spurn his interest in her – whatever particular form that interest might take – when she is reliant on the money which his foundation provides? Why Royce does take such an interest in Vita is not clear, although something about her seems to remind him of Kitty. As his own narrative unfolds, we are drawn back into the world which he and Kitty share in the gardens of Pompeii, where she – as an extremely promising young archaeological student – undertakes her excavations. Royce joins her on site as an assistant, and finds in Pompeii his competition, in the form of an older Italian archaeologist to whom Kitty is immediately drawn. As the relationship between the pair develops, Royce’s friendship takes on an increasingly manipulative character, and we begin to glean what in fact he might need to confess so many years later, to a former beneficiary on the other side of the world.

At the outset it may have seemed as if the climax toward which Dovey’s novel was building was what happened all those years ago to drive the pair apart. That question ultimately becomes secondary to the layered motivations and untold histories, of each. Why is Vita living alone, far from the land of her birth? Why is Royce dying alone, reaching out to a woman he has not seen for many years? What does each need to atone for, and how they are served by this mutual experiment in communication? It is not always clear who is the real audience for these letters, which come to resemble internal monologues – nor whose perspective might we privilege, when some of the book’s most vivid characters are not in fact either of our narrators but those on whom they are fixated. As readers we both know and don’t know, see and don’t see, those who are the objects of their respective affections.

As much as it is a novel of people, In the Garden of the Fugitives is a novel of places: countries, cities, landscapes, and their histories; the complex relationships we have to them, the ways in which we are drawn or tied to them, and the lengths we go to escape them. Vita loves the landscape of South Africa as anyone loves the distinctive contours and features of the country into which they were born, or in which they spent the formative years of their life. This love, however, is shot through with a shame that defines the way in which she perceives herself as an artist. Returning to South Africa to film a student project, she finds herself focusing on the non-human: the process of winemaking, the workings of machinery – all that can be reduced to process, without emotion. She belongs to this country, and yet she repudiates it; she feels she has a responsibility to it, yet it is one she does not know how to discharge.

It occurred to me that I had left the country at the worst possible age, neither child nor woman, still tentative in my new friendships with the black girls at my recently desegregated school, caught up in the wave of pride in becoming poster children of tolerance and amity, but without time to normalise those relationships, to get beyond the symbolism.

Returning to live in South Africa after graduation, determined to make something material from her troubled relationship to it, she is challenged by Magdalene, her one-time school friend and now counsellor, who specialises in working with white South Africans dealing with their guilt over apartheid. Has Vita considered the narcissism of this all-encompassing shame? Is she so important that she must feel personally responsible for the atrocities committed by a regime into which she was born? What does she owe the survivors of that regime, and what could they want from her? The questions raised by Vita’s guilt will resonate with white Australian readers – and indeed Vita reflects upon the irony of her immigration from a country defined by apartheid to one shaped by the genocide of its Indigenous peoples.

Royce’s relationship to place is a simpler one; for him the attraction of Pompeii – brought to life on the page so beautifully by Dovey – is inextricable from his obsession with Kitty. ‘It is impossible to experience a place like Pompeii outside the prism of your own desires,’ he writes to Vita. He follows Kitty to Pompeii as a layperson, offering his amateur services to aid her work, and just as Kitty is close to him yet inaccessible, unobtainable, so too what lies below Pompeii is distant from him, unknown and unknowable. Kitty’s own relationship to the ruins of Pompeii is one of respect for precisely that which is unknowable. Upon discovery of the bodies in the garden of the title, her colleague Rebecca insists upon the dangers of co-opting the past, determined not to make assumptions about the lives of these ‘fugitives’, and in doing so rewrite their histories. Like Rebecca, Kitty sees the value in ‘letting the past remain peculiar, rather than forcing it to become relatable,’ Royce writes.

She thought it right that the people of ancient times seem fathomless to us. Over the centuries, she claimed, the key that might unlock the truth of how they lived had been lost. Artifacts dug up by archaeologists are often treated as clues to the missing code, but in Kitty’s mind this was the wrong way to look at it. To her, those artifacts were more like pieces of alien matter dropped from outer space … The more we dig, the more we think we understand of the past. In fact, the more we uncover through excavating, the more we potentially obscure.

Here, then, is the question which both Royce and Vita confront in their correspondence with one another: how can they excavate the past without subsuming it? How can they resist the compulsion to write over the story of the past to make their own present more interesting, their guilt less haunting? Unless, of course, that is precisely what each is trying to do. In the Garden of the Fugitives is, finally, an elegant and intelligent commentary on the act of writing itself: the risk of transforming one’s past in the retelling; the challenge of finding that figure who will act as our real or imagined audience, and who – if we are brave – will keep us honest.