Review: Sophia Barneson new fiction

Restless Fictions

In each of these three new works of fiction – two first novels and a debut collection of short stories – characters are confronted by the limits of their control over the trajectories of their own lives. These lives are shaped and guided by the pull of responsibility to others; the pressures and rewards of family ties, and the ways that family can expand to include those to whom we are not related by blood. There is an edifying breadth of scope and style here, from the singular artistry of Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals to the guileless confidence of Murray Middleton’s When There’s Nowhere Else to Run and the confronting domestic drama of The Promise Seed.

All three are first time authors who have been singled out for recognition – Allinson as winner of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award, Middleton with the Vogel Literary Award, and Moriarty in the Emerging Author category of the Queensland Literary Awards. The mantle of emerging author can be a heavy one, particularly for those whose work has already garnered critical acclaim at manuscript stage. While these three share the advantage such attention brings them in what is a busy marketplace for new writers, their work displays a marked diversity of theme and form.

Allinson’s is a cerebral novel, passionately invested in the intellectual and cultural value of artistic production, and preoccupied by the craft of writing not only as praxis but as itself a subject of fiction. And while Middleton and Moriarty might both be described as broadly naturalist in style, each approaches the construction of narrative in a distinct way. Middleton composes the vignettes that make up his collection through moments of telling detail, eschewing omniscient description. Moriarty’s novel balances the twin perspectives of her two central characters chapter by chapter, depicting the lived reality and emotional legacy of trauma with nuance and sensitivity. Taken together these three works elude generalisation, contributing to a heterogeneous corpus of recent and forthcoming fiction by new Australian authors.

Between them they conjure something of Australia’s sheer size, the colours and contours of its vast empty spaces and the idiosyncrasies of its distinct cities. Allinson and Middleton both hail from Melbourne, evoking its characteristic mix of metropolitan buzz and outer sprawl, bounded to the north by the fire-ravaged southern slopes of the Great Dividing Range. Moriarty lives and writes in Brisbane, where her sensitive portrait of an unlikely friendship unfolds in a quiet suburban street, now baked in searing summer heat, now buffeted by a blustery winter chill.

From Balaclava and St Kilda to London, Berlin, Venice and Bucharest, Allinson’s novel ranges far and wide, anchored by the all-encompassing interiority of its unsettled protagonist’s first person  narrative. Middleton’s short stories move across the Australian landscape, from the bustle of Fremantle to the gentrified beauty of Daylesford, the vastness of the Nullarbor and the swelter of northern Queensland, while Moriarty’s restless narrator tries and fails to outrun his mistakes by taking off for the south, only to return, inevitably, to the city of his childhood.

The narrator and protagonist of Fever of Animals shares its author’s name, along with his occupation as a visual artist – though the fictional Miles has forsworn painting by the time we are introduced to him.  From this conceit unfurls a novel that is profoundly aware of the particular pressures encountered by a new writer, and as much about the process of constructing a story as it is about any one of a complex of interwoven themes. There is the intoxicating inception of a relationship and its inexorable progress through selfishness and need, desire and withdrawal, to an ending without resolution. There is the solitary journey back across the expanses of Europe and Asia to Australia, to confront the premature loss of a much-loved father. There is, perhaps in response to these twin griefs, a peripatetic pilgrimage in pursuit of the late and elusive surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu.

In the opening pages of Fever of Animals the fictional Miles contemplates the impossibility of finding an appropriate starting point for his story: does he begin with the collapse of his relationship, and his return home to a family soon to be in mourning? Does he begin where he sits, in an out-of-season summer cottage two hours from Berlin, waiting, perhaps fruitlessly, for Bafdescu’s son? Does he begin in Venice? London? Or even earlier? In the end there is no singular beginning to his story, and even as it draws to its conclusion it circles back, questioning its own shape. Throughout this temporally fractured and formally divided structure – split into three separate, and progressively shorter, sections – Allinson displays a consummate control of pace. Disparate timeframes, geographically distant locations and even different textual modes are seamlessly woven together, inviting the reader to reflect on the different ways a novel can take form – and indeed, the different forms a novel can take.

Elements of the surreal do not seem out of place in the everyday, as the novel moves effortlessly between the streets of Fitzroy or London and a world of haunted Romanian forests and fevered dreams. It’s a beguiling frame for a novel: an unusual painting with a shrouded history wends its way from behind the Iron Curtain to hang in the high corner of a restaurant wall in Melbourne, catching the attention of a father and son. With the premature death of the father and the traumatic breakdown of a romantic relationship the son’s obsession germinates, leading him finally to a secluded rural outpost where he awaits the arrival of a living connection to Bafdescu, the Romanian surrealist whose art and life, including an unresolved disappearance, has come to consume him. Why did he cease to paint as a surrealist, retreating to bland and conventional landscapes? How did he die? Was he snatched, quickly and quietly, by agents of Ceaușescu’s totalitarian regime, witnesses paid off and silenced? Or did he follow so many fellow surrealists, his friends and peers, into suicide, disillusioned, escaping a quiet and unfulfilling life?

Maybe he walked and walked and then, when he was far enough away, when the presence of the outside world had vanished completely, maybe he lay down and covered himself with leaves and waited, knowing that he would never be found.

For the young Australian man who asks these questions 50 years later, spinning out myriad possible conclusions to the story he is painstakingly tracing, painting is no longer a possibility. Is this what plagued Bafdescu? The same disenchantment that has caused Miles to abandon his art?

What I know now, but did not understand then, is that today, all painting is first and foremost a demonstration of the vocabulary of painting. Each brush stroke refers inevitably to the long history of brush strokes, to the belatedness of painting anything in a technological age, and to the impossibility of any original, authentic gesture. We cannot presume innocence the way the surrealists could. I had failed to take this into account. We cannot seriously believe that paintings will save us.

It’s not an original observation in a world where postmodernism is synonymous with the apparent collapse of the ‘authentic gesture’ – but the fact that it has been said before does not make it any less crushing a truth for a young artist to contend with.

There is a love story here also, whose end, in the telling, precedes its beginning. Alice is a bundle of contradictions, a traumatised woman who is ‘fragile and ‘small’, a ‘young, wounded animal’ in descriptions which skirt close to a stereotype of feminine vulnerability. Yet this trope is overturned as the woman who feared abandonment and erasure becomes the object of Miles’s incessant remembering; an object, like Bafdescu, of cross-continental obsession. Scenes, stories, conversations and observations are built up in layers, repeated or merely hinted at, lent different qualities of detail as they are retold. Like the suite of portraits which Miles condemns as a failure, in which faces are retraced and washed away in successive waves, here are memories both emerging and disappearing with each iteration. Here is the same technique of ‘slow accumulation’ the fictional Miles attributes to Bafdescu’s art.

Murray Middleton’s debut suite of short stories , one of a suite of recent Australian titles in the genre attracting critical attention, is only the second such collection to be awarded the Vogel in its history – and the first since 1986, when Robin Walton’s Glace Fruits took the prize. When There’s Nowhere Else To Run takes among its subjects not only the sprawling and diverse geography of Australia but the span of generations, and near incompatible ways of life. While each of the stories is discrete from the others, threads emerge and themes recur. Here are families in all their shapes and forms, bonded by blood or by friendship, by choice or by circumstance, coming together or breaking apart, dysfunctional and loving. The peculiar connection between adult siblings, the fierce and testing bonds of parents and children, the banality of those betrayals which hasten the sad, slow crumbling of a marriage. Young friends are brought together in the shock of grief, as biological families become estranged through trauma, selfishness or cowardice.

Middleton has an unadorned style, inflected here and there with a dry wit. The capacity of the short story to accommodate as little or as much as the author desires it to – from the space of an overnight train trip to the duration of several years – is put to its full use here. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, stories in the collection which are stronger than others – more sure of their scope, more distinctive in their voice – but even those which linger for a shorter time in the memory contain their moments of clarity, sharp observation or easy humour. The collection is distinguished by a capacity for insight which extends beyond the confines of gender or age. The voice of an exhausted and devoted mother seeking the estranged father of her gifted but challenging son feels as authentic as that of the unmistakably autobiographical voice of the young writer who is celebrating the success of his first literary award. The stories unfold in an unhurried way despite the brevity of many, as the relationships between characters emerge through interactions and encounters, scenes of upheaval or grief.

There is a generosity to the breadth of Middleton’s cast of protagonists, as wives who betray husbands, husbands who betray wives, children who are unknowingly cruel to their parents and parents who fail their children, are given voice without judgement. Characters often reveal as much about themselves through their observations of and reactions to others as is revealed through omniscient exposition, which is used sparingly. In ‘The Greatest Showbag on Earth’ a father takes his two young children to the Easter Show, reeling from the shock of his wife’s having left him and thoroughly beaten-down by the pressures of looming poverty and loneliness. Watching every penny and alienated from a frightened and angry son, he has contemplated suicide. In the midst of this desperation comes the unexpected gift of his son’s momentary sympathy, and the prospect of making his children happy, if only for one precious evening, is conjured with unobtrusive sensitivity.

Middleton won the Age Short Story Award in 2010 for ‘The Fields of Early Sorrow’, included here; it’s a brief, aesthetically spare but affecting story in which a successful journalist drives his little sister through the central west to a rehabilitation clinic in Lismore. In the story from which the collection takes its title, a group of young men and women gather together to care for their friend, who is dying of an unnamed illness at the all too early age of 27. This finely-drawn and moving vignette balances the persistent detail of the everyday with the shadow of imminent tragedy. In ‘Burnt Hill Farm’ two generations of two families narrate the years of their coming together to holiday each Easter. A journal-like narrative captures astutely they way in which life swells and empties out as children grow and age, leaving and finally returning with families of their own. The collection’s final stories bring with them the spectre of hope in unmoored, unconventional lives as a young man, running away from his alcoholic and neglectful father’s death, decides not to become the man he has only just begun to understand. People, Middleton seems to be reminding us, are capable of being good to one another – and to themselves.

Cass Moriarty’s first novel, The Promise Seed might be said ultimately to tell us the same thing; here, however, we must first wade through the very worst that humans do to those they claim to love. As Australia confronts the legacy of generations of ill-treatment and abuse of children in the care of the state, The Promise Seed is a timely novel; though in this case it is not the Home with a capital H in which the most grievous harm takes place.

There are two narrative strands to the novel, though only one is written in the first person; ‘the old man’, as he is identified, speaks to us in his own voice, while ‘the boy’ – also unnamed – is depicted in the close third person. For the most part Moriarty artfully weaves these two strands together, moving chapter by chapter from one perspective to the other. Only occasionally does the voice of the old man jar a little, his recourse to clichés distracting, if arguably authentic. Nonetheless his is undoubtedly the strongest voice in the novel and that which gives it its shape, tracing the trajectory of a strife-plagued life from formative childhood tragedy to solitary old age, punctuated by periodic descents into self-destruction.

Simple kindnesses pulled me through. I could’ve ended up much worse. There’re people out there merely existing scraping by, one day at a time, with such worry and sadness and fury within them that it would kill you to know about it. People with so many of those little compartments in their heads that they spend all their time scrabbling about trying to tunnel through to freedom.

The Promise Seed is the story of a burgeoning friendship between old man and boy, unfolding at an elegant pace as each finds something valuable and necessary in the presence of the other. The emotional stakes are high, and Moriarty allows room for both of these characters to become fully-fleshed, drawing the reader slowly into a world in which the threat of violence is ever present. It is in the evocation of the relationship between the old man and the boy, its daily bounties, the richness of his hospitality and their shared labour, that the novel is at its strongest. The physical parameters of the central narrative are kept effectively close, bounded for most of the novel by the fences of the old man’s property, where his friendship with the boy unfolds through hard-fought games of chess, sugary afternoon teas and the husbandry of a disparate family of chickens. A treasured Christmas-day trip to Bribie Island, the joy-filled high preceding a crushing blow, is related to the reader second-hand, through the excitable chatter of a sunburnt and happily exhausted boy.

Moriarty brings to her writing the experience of working as a volunteer with Crisis Care in after-hours child protection, and a reader can hardly deny her familiarity with the brutality and parental disregard to which the boy is exposed over the course of the narrative. No doubt she could have written a far bleaker and less hopeful novel, yet The Promise Seed – as its title might suggest – maintains a sense of optimism, a belief that it is possible to resist the legacy of abuse and neglect. In pairing an old man with a young boy Moriarty balances the history of a life that is seemingly near its end when transformed by new friendship, with a life for the most part yet to be lived. In telling the story of the promise seed to the boy, the old man tries to make reparation for the most destructive of his own choices, willing his young friend not to make the same ones.

The title of Middleton’s collection gestures at a theme that is common to each of these three texts, in which the old and the young, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied in grief, joy or recklessness by those they love, realise the futility of their attempts at escape. Some return to the streets of childhood while others face up to the consequences of terrible mistakes; a restless young man finally ceases his circling back, incessantly, to the sites and scenes of past regret.