Review: Katie Dobbson Gail Jones

Matches in the Dark

In Gail Jones’ debut novel Black Mirror (2002), young Australian biographer Anna travels to London to meet Victoria Morrell, who in the 1930s fled a Western Australian gold-mining town for Paris, where she became an artist at the fringes of the surrealist movement. Interviewing her flamboyant subject, Anna discovers that Morrell’s extravagance conceals a deep shame that her father, owner of the local Midas mine, was violently racist. His fondness for proudly comparing the depth of his mine to the inferior height of the Eiffel Tower makes her flight to Paris symbolic, more than the act of a provincial putting on airs. Positioning art as a repudiation of the corrupting colonial logic of plunder, Anna celebrates Morrell as a ‘Prospector of the Marvellous’.

Finding a book of Morrell’s reproductions in her local goldfields library at the age of twelve, Anna pressed it ‘against her chest as though claiming a lover.’ Growing up for some years in the Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie, and herself a writer in the modernist tradition, Jones’ embrace of an early twentieth-century aesthetic is similarly ardent. In her eighth novel, Our Shadows, the character of Frances Kelly, plunging into the ‘haphazard dazzle’ of a Sydney afternoon, asks herself ‘what was it about a sunny Saturday that made for transfiguration?’ A 39-year-old recently widowed art-gallery attendant, Frances is alert to ‘bird-flick and leaf ruffle and a high criss-cross of contrails’, receptive to the ‘sensation of cloudburst’ and the ‘glare of coincidence’. ‘Pattern recognition, the first refuge of nutters,’ thinks her sister Nell, who functions throughout the novel as a contrapuntal force and occasional tonic. Two years Frances’ senior, Nell has a history of mental illness and is in therapy. Between the two sisters, we hear an echo – as we did between ‘unironic’ Ellie and ‘obstinately unjoyful’ James in Five Bells (2011)–of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. Jones, like Virginia Woolf, evinces a faith in art’s regenerative power and the recurrence of trauma in her novel is met with an aesthetic patterning that recuperates, or at least consoles. God knows the Kelly family need it; this is a novel that puts no ceiling on sorrow.

The family’s history reads like a gothic curse. The sisters’ mother died during Frances’ birth and they were raised in Kalgoorlie by their grandparents, Else and Fred Kelly, who chose not to speak of their grief to their granddaughters, joining ‘silence and love with such efficiency that the sisters persuaded themselves to skip a generation’. Fred was a miner, who began working underground as a detonator in the 1930s. His life took a physical and psychological toll. He witnessed fatal accidents and suicides of friends, traumas that were compounded when he enlisted. He became a prisoner of war, first in Burma and then down a coalmine in Japan. He was shipped home in 1945, but not before witnessing the devastation of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. Returning to Else and work in the mines, he was ‘hellbent to unremember and keep it down below’. He died prematurely of lung disease, a casualty of mining like his father before him.

Frances and Nell have never met their father, who fled after their mother’s death to Albany and the ‘balm of the ocean’. Echoing their father’s pilgrimage, they have moved to Sydney as adults to be consoled by the proximity of the ‘mothering sea’. Growing up in the goldfields, Nell was the rebellious sister. Since being hospitalised as a fourteen-year old for paranoid delusions, she has become estranged from her sibling. Having nursed her husband Will, who grew up in the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom, through the ravages of mesothelioma (which also claimed his father), Frances has relocated Else, who is suffering dementia, to a Sydney care facility. It is Frances who shoulders the responsibility of managing her care.

True to the gothic genre, the siblings are troubled by memories of the ‘trembling’ house they grew up in on Midas Street, which was rocked by periodic blasts from the Super Pit. Since childhood, Nell has had recurring nightmares of the house falling into the Pit and of herself going up in flames. In therapy, she links the latter image to the night, as a twelve-year-old, she set fire to a woman’s hair at a Carols by Candlelight. By placing this event in 1988, the year of the Bicentenary, ‘the Celebration of Invasion’, Jones implies Nell’s guilt has a political resonance.

There are evocations here of Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth (2004), but an image from A Guide to Berlin (2015), where Jones describes an ‘Australian Gothic house on stilts’ illuminated at intervals by a ‘stripe of white light’ from a nearby lighthouse, suggests her perspective is Woolfian. There is a line of house-haunting in Our Shadows that evokes the ‘Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse (1927), in which the Ramsays’ holiday home stands uninhabited for a decade through the First World War and beyond. As Jones travels the rooms at Midas Street, she hews more conventionally to character, but her limited third-person narration makes feints at such objectification. Returning to the ‘dreamhouse’ in her mind, Nell sees herself from above. When Frances eventually returns to Kalgoorlie and makes her way through the ‘sleeping house’ in the ‘post-mortem’ dark, she notes ‘the way rooms hold a breath and the venture of memory’. For the Kellys, a mining family ‘bent on repressive silence and rigorous forgetting’ who have ‘a hole in their history’, memory arrives particularly freighted. Just as the Ramsays’ empty house offered an allegory of a country going through immense change, the house on Midas Street has its allegorical implications, evoking a country that has failed to address its history of Indigenous dispossession and a settler psyche haunted by anxieties about emplacement.

As amultigenerational family saga set largely in the West Australian goldfields, Our Shadows recalls Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields Trilogy (1946-1950),the epic story of the Gough family from the 1890s to the end of the Second World War. Jones’ novel spans this era and extends it to the present day, interleaving its family saga with the story of Irish settler Paddy Hannan, a historical figure whose discovery of alluvial gold in 1893 catalysed the gold rush and led to the colonial ‘founding’ of Kalgoorlie. But as she cycles between the stories of Paddy, Frances, Fred, Else and Nell, Jones undermines the connotations of progress and enduring culture that afflict Prichard’s social realism.

The novel instead offers an anti-heroic view of trauma. Within each scene, timekeeping is given over to the errant fob watch of the psyche. Waking in the night from erotic dreams of Will, Frances has the sense ‘that time was pooling, not flowing, that there was a basin of feeling into which one might fall and drown’. Returning from the Second World War with ‘nothing heroic to report’, Fred is frequently assaulted by memory, the past cutting through him ‘like a bayonet’. The novel’s critique of masculine stoicism and its implication in colonial silence is tempered by a compassionate understanding of the paucity of ‘reliable words’ with which to speak of trauma. When Fred’s controlled narration finally loosens into a 280-word sentence expressing a rush of grief over the death of his daughter Mary, Else is in the ‘quiet and blanketing peace’ of sleep.

In the chapters devoted to the amnesiac Else, the novel’s commitment to capturing the flow of sensation and memory upon consciousness is at its most explicit. Formatted like free verse, Else’s snatches of consciousness move from the Beckettian (‘Me Else where?’) to more Joycean evocations of her years with Fred (‘the smell of him yes one two one two’). The strain of allusion is apt; though they are not related to Paddy Hannan, the Kelly family have Irish ancestry ‘somewhere in the past’.A figure for the amnesia of the settler psyche and its outbound affinities, Else is also a fully-fledged character in Fred and the sisters’ memories, where compassion nuzzles against critique. It is Else’s deterioration that prompts Frances and Nell to excavate their past and reflect upon their relationship, which is characterised by its quiet antagonism: when Nell looks at composed Frances, she observes ‘her preoccupation, surely greater than her own, surely more dignified and more intrinsically wise’; Frances notes that the teary Nell gets to be the sister ‘in whom feeling concentrated and became visible’. While this sibling dynamic, inflamed by bereavement, has a psychological truth, the narrative feels weighted more sympathetically to Frances, who always seems to get the final word.

The symbol of the swirling Moskenstraumen, drawn from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a book treasured by the sisters in childhood, recurs as they try to find a way back to one another, buffeted by ‘waves’ of feeling. Aquatic imagery saturates the novel. Advancing her themes in imagery more than plot, Jones is fond of the ekphrastic contrivance, such as a computer conveniently left open to a weather site, which provides an opportunity for Nell to observe the orderly ‘concentric patterns’ and think ‘not a churn of mad water, not the Moskenstraumen’.

When Jones tacks to less contemporary material, the narration is invigorated by distance. Thick with vernacular (Grand, it was, grand) and poetic assonance (godwits and swifts), Paddy Hannan’s narration has a musicality that enlivens his journey from his arrival on the east coast of Australia in 1862, a hopeful migrant from Quin, County Clare, to his eventual success, after thirty years of prospecting with only ‘a skerrick of hope’ in the West Australian goldfields. Fresh from a land where ‘a spade might strike at the uncoffined bodies of the Hunger’ (or, further back, an Iron Age man bound in sacrifice, ‘a cord at the neck and scoured skin, tarn-stained and unlovely’), Paddy comes laden with what Maeve Brennan called the ‘bog and thunder’ variety of Irishness. Jones alludes to the bog poems of Seamus Heaney, signalling her project of bringing the past into relation with the present and foregrounding theknowledge, as in ‘Bogland’, that as the pioneers strike ‘inwards and downwards, / Every layer they strip / Seems camped on before’.

In her treatment of Indigenous dispossession, Jones refrains from directly representing scenes of colonial violence. Paddy hears ‘rumours’ of murders and massacres, but never witnesses them. Hearing singing from the camps on the edge of town, the Irish hear ‘a tone they understood: of loved ones gone and land brutally taken, of lives destroyed, and asunder, and disrespected. But this time the Irish were the lucky ones.’ The fact that the Irish were themselves persecuted by the colonising English, enables an empathetic portrayal of Paddy that is not necessarily objectionable – indeed, it might encourage the reader to consider her own ‘passive’ implication in settler capitalism. Jones proceeds to restore the critical meaning Donald Horne intended when he coined the phrase ‘the lucky country’: Paddy ‘was someone whom accident, chance, luck and mistake had made unnaturally passive’. After he finds alluvial gold and the mining town goes ‘rushing and exploding’ on Wangkathaa land, Paddy feels ashamed of what he has set in motion. The novel offers a revisionist portrayal of him as a reluctant hero, leaving the goldfields and its endless commemorations of him to pursue an anonymous life in Melbourne. Settling in Brunswick, he is tracked down by an interviewer whose ‘rude questions’ turn ‘the soil within him’, triggering memories of the Hunger and Evictions (a two-page syntactical rush of bodies, ‘dead and unburied’, piling up with each new conjunction).

If the narrative has a driving question, it is the eternal one of how to live, find meaning, amidst all the sorrow and horror. Just as Paddy feels adrift in a ‘godforsaken’ land of phony priests peddling ‘all purpose’ allegories, Frances and Nell lose their faith as children. The ‘great revelation’ never comes and Jones’ characters must content themselves, like the Ramsays before them, with ‘daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’.

One of the matches Jones strikes is the character Marty Friedlander, an endurance dancer from the goldfields, who ships out in the same AIF division as Fred. Back home, Marty is derided and beaten by men who are threatened by the eloquence of his gestures, but in the P.O.W. camps, Marty’s‘antic dancing’ is understood by the other men as a gift and ‘a solace, as they sank filthy and hurting into their own danceless deaths’. There is a nod to Walter Benjamin here (an unsynchronised gesture loosening the men for a moment from the system that dehumanises them) and the incandescent description of Marty exemplifies Jones’ refusal to write the economical prose that too often passes as Australian style.

The author’s poetic affirmation of ‘a sensual life’ is correctively feminine. Yes, what Joyce called ‘the female word’, recurs throughout the novel, which is dense with depictions of women swimming, jogging, having sex, and moments when men display solicitude and maternal care. Watching the televised 2018 rescue of the junior football team stranded by flooding in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand, Frances notes the way men cradle and guide the children out of the darkness of the cave ‘giving safe passage, as in a birth’. Whether the imagery is aquatic or maternal, one is always aware of the poetic sensibility casting a benevolent web across the novel that recuperates and rehabilitates; Jones’ emphasis on patterning is in keeping with the modernist sense that, as Cynthia Ozick writes in Letters of Intent (2018), ‘though things fall apart … the artist is whole, consummate. At bottom, in the deepest brain, rested the supreme serenity and masterly confidence of the sovereign maker.’ Converting Paddy to the cause, Jones has him become, in his seventies, a reader. Sitting in the dome of the State Library of Victoria, he feels as though he is ‘inside the skull of a God … part of a larger design’.

It is not until Part Two, the final quarter of Our Shadows, that the consolatory architecture of the novel becomes clear. After Else’s death, Frances returns home to Kalgoorlie and the house in Midas Street, which remains inhabited by her Aunt Enid, a stock gothic character: the brittle, overgrown child who never left home. But also living there is Enid’s unlikely companion Val, a Mandildjara woman from Wiluna, north of Kalgoorlie, who, Frances learns, was her mother’s childhood friend. When Val tells Frances of the presence of fossils and fish bones in the desert, ‘evidence of long-ago ocean’, the wave of colonial accretion sweeps back to reveal deep time.

Elizabeth Hardwick, turning her attention to Woolf’s novels in Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974), nearly conceded defeat: ‘Exegesis … is a trap; the fictions are circular and the critic spins in a drum of tautology.’ If Our Shadows prompts an analogous feeling – that it’s all so eloquently, amply there – this is compounded by the fact that Jones gives us both the artistry and the exegesis. Frances’ thoughts in particular can read like a gloss on the novel we’re reading. ‘Pervasive incongruity, the shifts in history made symbolic,’ she thinks at one point, summarising the narrative technique. With Part Two focalised entirely through the virtuous Frances, the novel threatens to collapse into pedagogy. Early in her stay in Kalgoorlie, Val takes Frances to visit the Aboriginal Language Centre, and shows her ‘something that might be forgotten …something beyond the official history of the town: Paddy Hannan, gold rush, the aggrandisement of wealth’.

Sharing a bedroom, Val and Frances experience a ‘spontaneous trust’ that prompts Val to divulge stories, personal and cultural. Self-conscious about representing this accelerated intimacy, Jones writes of Frances: ‘her generation were emotional cynics, hard to convince. But Val took for granted a concord of spirit.’ We have to take Frances at her word, as the reader has no access to Val’s interiority. Described as ‘patient, calm and self-possessed’, she is a teacher of the Martu Wangka language who volunteers at the women’s refuge and is a citizen scientist for a university in Perth. When Val confides that she lost her mother young and lived with her aunties before she was taken, as a seven-year-old, from her country to a mission and made a ward of the state, this history is shared ‘with no distress in the telling’.

Jones is presumably keen to emphasise the resilience and endurance of Indigenous culture rather than the traumatic legacy of colonial intervention and to have the generosity and plenitude of this culture stand as an antidote to colonial silence and repression. A camping trip on Wangkathaa country is understood by Frances as ‘cultural instruction’, to which she assumes an attitude of ‘subordination’. But one is struck less by her willingness to learn, than the autocorrecting speed with which she does. Driving back from the trip, Frances asks Val if she will take her to visit her Country. Not yet, ‘not in your sorry time’, Val replies. Frances, hitting the limits of her rapture, takes this as a rebuke. There was a chance for Jones to breathe some air into the narration here, but like a gracious host she is close at hand, smoothing things over. ‘Perhaps she’d wanted to possess what was not hers to possess,’ Frances thinks; Val reassures Frances with a joke, promises her she will think about that visit to country, and the two are ‘reconciled’.

Under allegorical pressure, the two women’s relationship was bound to become representative, but we don’t have to strain hard to hear the ‘rustle of historical association’ clinging, as James Wood would have it, to the ‘hem’ of this word. One feels circumspect Nell would have provided more traction in the metaphorical journey being embarked upon. Given over to Frances’ narrow self-reflexivity, it all seems preordained, a sense compounded by the narration’s occasional shifts into future conditional tense,prophesising events that have not yet happened. What is foregone at the level of dramatic irony is lavished instead on sensibility. An insistent equanimity of narrative voice often manifests in parallel syntax (‘this was peace, this was consilience’) and suggests a quasi-religious harmony between Frances and Val, who had ‘lain on their beds, parallel’, whispering words into the darkness as ‘children and lovers do’.

This fast friendship is watched on by Enid who, with her ‘corrupting’ pessimism, is resentful of their connection. As if foreseeing critical charges of sentimentalism, Jones has Frances bemoan the bet-hedging of social media, where ‘even those enraptured by artworks found words to include cautious aloofness.’ The paradox is that this didactic seam of the novel, as the author teaches us how not to read it, leaves the reader feeling less awed than cowed. And yet Frances’ underwhelmed response to an exhibition of ‘grunge-genre photographs’ (‘The usual. Irony. Trauma. The scuzzy emptiness of the real’) usefully recalls us to Jones’ own formal allegiance. Similarly wearing of postmodernist evasiveness and disavowal, Ozick found herself nostalgic for the literary modernists whose work, though ‘gilded by a certain voluptuousness,’ had ‘mettle’ and ‘accountability’. Given that, in Jones’ own words, ‘the assumptions [she makes] about where meaning lies, and how writing matters are probably high modernist,’ it should come as little surprise that her political desires are advanced stylistically, more than dramatically.

Noting, in an interview, thematic and symbolic recurrences in Five Bells, Jones spoke of ‘patterns of connection, of solidarity.’ In Our Shadows, shared experiences of orphanhood and bereavement are reiterated by symbolic recurrences. Listening to Val talk reverently of the ‘mothering’ ocean, which has become a ‘watery religion’ for the Kelly sisters, Frances imagines ‘a flowing space, that seemed to support them.’ One thinks of Woolf’s debut novel The Voyage Out (1915), where aquatic imagery signalled, as Lorna Sage wrote in Moments of Truth (2001), the novelist’s desire for ‘a common matrix’, an element that might ‘solve the limits of fields’. For Jones, the ocean proves both capacious enough to foreground commonality – all of us, pummelled by the great maelstrom of history – and elastic enough to engineer fluid shifts in perspective. Glimpsing the water from the ‘luxurious captivity’ of a cruise, ‘safely lassoed in the tight circle of a porthole,’ it is Enid, predictably, who suggests the privileged limitations of – and violence inherent in – the settler view. Frances instead models receptivity for the reader; an effort to find ‘consilience’ between what she calls, as Val drives her into Wangkathaa country, different ‘frames of knowledge’.

Moving her characters out from the generational homestead, that staple of the Australian Gothic, Jones signals her desire to leave behind the well-worn settler psychodrama, and the paralysis of unacknowledged guilt. In doing so she risks, like Frances, earnestness and admonishment. When Frances thinks Val’s ‘lyric talk with poetical conviction was altogether exotic,’ she furnishes an apt descriptor of Jones’ own effusive style. Enlisted in the allegorical scheme of the novel Val, with her exemplary CV, can feel too convenient a catalyst for Frances’ re-enchantment (‘instead of passivity and incoherence, there was the dawning of a frail, provisional faith’). And yet in limiting our access to Val’s interiority, and thus her trauma, Jones remains alert to where acknowledgement tips into appropriation. Val’s connection to Country ultimately gets Frances thinking about her own ‘kin’, rousing a ‘wish for emplacement’. As with Paddy, who, burdened by his ill-gained wealth, imagines himself a hawk, ‘possessing nothing and finding nothing but the arc of a quiet wind’, the settler envy is moderated by a gesture of divestment. Coming into an unexpected but ‘modest inheritance’ from her father, Frances leaves Kalgoorlie and embarks alone on a road-trip, driving toward Albany and ‘a shell of a home, almost a hovel’, on a windy escarpment where a loyal kelpie called Ruffy awaits.

Is there a certain romance of downward mobility here, child-like fantasies trailing connotations of settler innocence? From a modernist perspective, the child is a symbol of the revolutionary desire to make anew. Attempting to resolve these overlapping connotations can feel joyless, akin to reducing a Hilma af Klint painting to a Venn diagram. The uncertain, irreducible interplay between different ‘frames of knowledge’ is perhaps the true adventure of Our Shadows, a novel that reverberates with the conviction that art should attend not only to trauma and disjunction, but to the possibility of communion and repair.

We leave Frances in the prospective future, imagining she will one day reunite with Val and Nell in Sydney, take a walk along the coast by the ‘mothering ocean.’ While Jones’ tendency to lean on the consolations of symbol and form can make the reading experience feel airless, she is too sage to confuse her command of design for moral completion. Still, the lasting sense is of an author deliberate and defiant in the regenerative reach of her vision. Even 85-year-old Paddy, in his final moments, is granted a sensual recuperation: his bed ‘a coffin ready-made, drawing him earthwards, cosseting and placating like the body of a large woman, and smelling deliciously of woman-wet.’