Review: Fiona Wrighton Josephine Rowe

An Eerie Sort of Magic: Here Until August by Josephine Rowe

1. ‘Years from now, you will try to explain it’

Josephine Rowe’s stories are about time. Time as it is lived and as it is recounted; the way it doesn’t just progress, but speeds and slows, persists and lingers. Her characters are sometimes aware of time passing, almost as if they stand outside it, sometimes aware that the moment they are in is one that they will return to, again and again, across their later lives. Or else they are narrating from a position that is simultaneously in the present and in the future, looking back: ‘I will never see anything like it again,’ narrates a boy, suddenly a man, describing wading out to an island through a sea full of bioluminescent phytoplankton in ‘Glisk’; the story ‘What Passes for Fun’ begins with the phrase ‘somewhere close to the end of things,’ an opening that’s also a foreshadowing of an ending, although of what and of which nature the reader is never privy. Memory, in Rowe’s stories, works in anterograde, as well as in reverse.

What’s interesting about this is the way that time, in these stories, expands and contracts; the stories move beyond attending to the moment, or the small sequence of events, the illustrative snapshot or vignette, to telescope suddenly into a future either real or imagined, and the implications and importance of what the reader has just been told are given space within the story and not only in its margins. The stories in Here Until August – even that title, a strange contraction of time – are unusually long, because they need this space to work with time. There are elisions, stories narrated in future-conditional tense, a kind of poetic compression that sees days and weeks, whole seasons and whole years stack up against each other, one by one. (‘It all belongs to this summer,’ narrates Lani, one of the girl-protagonists of Rowe’s 2016 novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal. ‘A winter will come and roll over it…and soon enough it will belong to last summer. Then the summer before last. Three years ago, four.’)

The first story in Here Until August, ‘Glisk,’ takes its title from the term one of the characters, a prodigal-son returned to Perth after six years overseas, uses to describe the car accident he was involved in, the accident that was the impetus for his flight (‘depending on who you care to ask, Fynn either ran, slunk, snuck, crawled, choofed off, fucked off, hauled arse or simply went’) in the first place: ‘It happened in a heartbeat. In a glisk,’ he states. The word is Scots – Fynn has been living in the Scottish Northern Isles since he left Perth, working in a whisky distillery, trying to find solace in a landscape ‘that old, that immense’. A glisk, a flash: a single moment, but one which reverberates for years.

And yet the emotional charge of this story does not come from this moment, but from an incident from years before, when Fynn and his half-brother Raf, who narrates this story, swim out to an island with their family on a neap tide (‘the highest tide not as high as normal, the deepest part not so deep’) to watch the ocean light up with bioluminescence. Fynn, thirteen, has built a raft of packing foam and buckets, upon which to ferry his younger sister Sara, and the raft breaks apart midway through the crossing: another, early accident, an earlier carelessness, but one which Fynn is able to remedy by carrying his sister, even though doing so leaves him vomiting up seawater and with ‘stinger marks striped’ across his ‘quaky legs’. The luminous plankton, the waves which ‘crash iridescent against the rocks… sweeping away to leave lonely blue stars stranded here and there,’ and which Raf describes as ‘spectacular, an eerie sort of magic’: this, Raf states, ‘this isn’t the point… It’s this wading out that matters’ and it matters both for what it portends for Fynn, and what it says about his character: this is the Fynn that Raf will spend years, later, ‘trying to wrest… back from what local mythology has made of him.’ From what time has made of him, from what happened to him in a glisk.

Fynn’s accident, of course, persists into his future. There is the separation now between him and his brother – one built of temporal as well as physical distance. Raf lists him having missed: ‘Mum and Sara syncing up their mid-life and quarter-life crises; the Perth mining boom; the resulting ice boom; the inevitable rehab boom’. And it’s a distance built too of the sense Fynn has of having, still, what he calls ‘this scooped-out place’ inside of him that nothing seems to touch or fill. It persists in his skin turned pale by time spent by the Atlantic Sea and not the Indian Ocean (‘six bloody summers’), in the joke from childhood that Raf makes and Fynn misses, in everything they cannot say to each other, and in the abiding guilt that lets Fynn walk into the night with the father of the family who died when Fynn’s car hit theirs, despite knowing that the situation can’t be fixed, not this time.

And so ‘Glisk’ is a story about the past and about the future, told from the present, but the present is only important as the site from which these other temporalities unfurl. Time isn’t simple, isn’t linear: it loops and leaps about and Rowe’s characters are left floundering in its wake, trying to make sense of or even just survive their glisks, their moments where everything changed.

2. ‘We’re absolutely not taking this pineapple. Not after the lychee debacle.’

Glisk is a beautiful word, a resonant word, a word that can contain an entire narrative: Josephine Rowe’s stories are about words like these. Overheard phrases, and remembered phrases too, those small and often playful pieces of speech that can reveal so much about a character or a place. In ‘Glisk’, the boys’ father chants ‘The sea the sea the terrible…’ before his sons interrupt: ‘Yep, yep, we say, we know; Dad gets wordy sometimes’; in ‘Anything Remarkable’ two newly-married women travelling through America (‘because who could be fucked waiting for Australia to get its shit together’) play a game listing words ending with fs that pluralise to v – like wolf to wolves, wife to wives (‘they all sound vital and gleaming’). At other times, words act almost like sense-memories, conjuring up the deep past for the characters that hear or think of them: ‘Crimplene’s just another word for lazy,’ a man remembers his mother saying across his childhood in ‘Sinkers’; ‘A good day for it,’ comes a voice to the back of the narrator’s mind in ‘A Small Cleared Space,’ though she cannot recognise to whom the voice belongs, let alone for what exactly it is a good day. Ru, the protagonist of A Loving, Faithful Animal remembers (and misses) her father for, among other things, giving her ‘seven slang words for horse’ and ‘nonsense riddles’ like ‘why is a mouse that spins?’ (Her sister, Lani, remembers the riddle ‘what would you rather be or a policeman?’). Other times still, the phrases are mysterious: a dentist tells a man he has ‘an uncomplicated mouth’ in ‘The Once-Drowned Man’; the shut-down and shut-in protagonist of ‘Chavez’ overhears a family arguing about a pineapple in a supermarket, and delights for a moment in the exchange.

There’s a love of language here, of course, but these words and phrases do important work within the stories: they are pivots, sometimes, or time machines, and they’re remarkable for the poetic compression that they allow. They carry histories, and whole relationships, as well as an abundance of charm.

3. She has a certain grace with grief, the grief of others.’

Josephine Rowe’s stories are about grief, and trauma, and everything that happens afterwards. Grief and trauma, of course, upset the regular procession of time: the past recurs, or disappears, the present and future are irrevocable changed. So many of Rowe’s characters are living in the aftermath, immediate or otherwise, of loss: there are miscarriages, the death of a parent, failed and failing marriages, the death of a spouse. The title story of Tarcutta Wake (2012) takes place at a funeral; A Loving, Faithful Animal is about the aftermath of war (‘That right there is what war does. Takes a tyre iron to beauty’), about a traumatised Vietnam veteran and his family, all of whom are affected by what he has lived through and cannot come to terms with. At times, this grief is witnessed – as when the narrator of ‘Anything Remarkable’ watches a woman howling in a clearing in some woodlands, timing her cries to the ringing of a church’s bells – or it is anticipated, as in ‘Real Life’ or ‘Post-Structuralism for Beginners’, where two very different women foresee the end of their relationships (‘these people you can have but not keep,’ one laments).

Grief is complex, in these stories, and many-layered, but it’s also handled gently by Rowe: more often than not, it’s hinted at, rather than approached directly, usually the exact nature of the trauma unfolds slowly within the stories, or is kept hidden entirely. Or it’s displaced: Naoishe, the protagonist of ‘A Small, Cleared Space’ tries to care for wildcat kittens in a frozen landscape while she is actually grieving a miscarriage (‘She wondered if it would be easier to have something definite to point to’), while the hurt of the taxi driver who narrates ‘The Once-Drowned Man’ lies hidden beneath the more vociferous griefs of her passenger.

Grief is handled most directly in the story ‘Sinkers’, in which a young man, Cristian, takes a hired boat out onto Lake Eucumbene – the man-made lake that covers Old Adaminaby, the town in which his mother was born – in order to scatter her ashes ‘above the place she believed her house must have been.’ Cristian’s grief is palpable – he keeps remembering interactions and exchanges with his mother, her insistence on telling even harsh truths (‘Look, kiddo, other people are going to lie to you. And some are going to do it out of what they think is kindness. Not me, though, I’m never going to’), her inability to suffer fools (‘Stick your head under the water, she used to say, and all you’re going to hear is your ears getting wet’) which continues in her impatience with chemotherapy, her pet name – Cricket – for her son. Each of these interactions carries a great tenderness, in both senses of the word: they are full of love, and they hurt.

But there’s an indirect, allusive grief here too, embedded in the landscape that Cristian is moving through, or moving over, more precisely. Old Adaminaby is a lost town, a sunken town, a town that was flooded when ‘the Hydroelectric came’ (when Cristian’s mother was fourteen), some buildings relocated to the new town, further up the valley, but many others left for the water to claim. The submerged town is mythic, poetic: there are stories about a church bell that rings still, when the tide changes; of an abandoned house ‘where a man had maybe killed his wife and child’, about parts of the town re-emerging when a drought ‘sucked half the lake away’, allowing former residents to sift through the mud for ‘the detritus of their own histories.’ But it is also, obviously, a site of loss: Cristian’s mother’s childhood home was one of those left behind, leaving her, somehow, rootless across the rest of her life. Cristian’s rowing out over the town with her ashes is a re-enactment of her annual birthday ritual, of hiring a boat and having a picnic over the site of her old house, scattering some cake crumbs into the water as some kind of offering. The grief of the mother and the grief of the son, that is, are intertwined in this strange, watery landscape, both of them shifting and fluid, neither of them able to be reconciled or pinned down.

4. ‘Was this the house with the outdoor laundry, the blighted lemon tree?’

Josephine Rowe’s stories are about exile. They are about emigration or alienation, people moving through a landscape, a city, a house, in which they do not or cannot belong. Sometimes, these characters are travelling – like the women passing through a small American town in ‘Anything Remarkable’ or the narrators of ‘What Passes for Fun’, or they are living, temporarily, far from home, like the protagonists of ‘Real Life’ in their apartment in Canada, or the renters who populate so many of the stories in Tarcutta Wake. More often, they are escaping or fleeing tragedy or grief, like Naioshe, or Séverine, the French protagonist of ‘Chavez,’ living alone in an American city after the violent death of her husband. Sometimes, this tragedy is a quieter, more long-term one: Aland, from ‘Post Structuralism for Beginners’ grew up as a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa and carries this trauma still, just as Fynn still carries his grief, exiled in Scotland, six years after his car accident.

In ‘Chavez’, Séverine always refers to her home town, where her sister still lives, and from where her freelance work translating interviews for journalists still finds her, as ‘the city so recently known as Home’. After the death of her husband – killed on a dangerous film-making trip in and around Turkey – she adds, the city has ‘become a facsimile of Home’, which is ‘far more unsettling than being elsewhere.’ And so she has left, taken up the flight and accommodation that had already been put in place for a yearlong appointment that her husband was supposed to take up at an American university. Séverine hardly leaves her building, snacks rather than eats (‘I can get by on very little’), protecting herself in a place where she is ‘not known’.

Séverine’s isolation, however, is broken by her neighbour Maria, who asks her to look after her dog, (the titular Chavez, a ‘mongrel wolf-dog’), while she is away for a fortnight. Maria has taught Chavez one command: Escóndete (hide, or disappear), at the sound of which he runs under a table and curls into a ball, and Séverine can’t help but note her similarity: ‘I simply arrived in this city,’ she states, ‘and, like Chavez, curled into the smallest space I could find.’ Maria, too, is an exile, although of a different kind: Séverine notes that her kitchen doorway is marked with the heights of her children, even though they have never stood in there, is filled with their photographs too; Maria is travelling ‘down to the south’ to fight ‘her mythological husband’ for the children. Maria’s exile carries a different kind of sadness, is driven by a different kind of need – economic, political – and as such, offers a quiet but devastating counterpoint to Séverine’s, all the more so when Maria does not (cannot?) return after the two weeks for which she had intended to be away.

The dog, of course, forces Séverine back into some kind of engagement with the world, because of his animal demands, for exercise, for food. He is not a cure – Rowe’s stories aren’t that simple – but his presence does draw Séverine out into her neighbourhood, albeit mostly in the ‘unpeopled hours’ of early mornings and late nights. But he also offers Séverine a kind of grounding, a steady presence in her solitude. She sleeps, she says ‘pushing my toes into his fur in a way we have both come to appreciate: I am here, I am here also.’ The city so recently known as Home remains such, Maria remains absent, Séverine’s grief still fills her days: Chavez is the only kind of anchor she can find.

5. ‘All of us were in between, rising or falling; we wouldn’t know which way till afterwards.’

Josephine Rowe’s stories are about transience, and people in between: all of these exiles are impermanent. Often, her characters are on the cusp of a decision, like the narrator of ‘Real Life’, who has fallen pregnant to her peripatetic boyfriend, but cannot bring herself to tell him (‘if I told him, he’d decide on something. A direction, he’d pick a direction.’) and can’t bring herself to consider what to do. A story in Tarcutta Wake centres on a woman undergoing a surrogate pregnancy and living in a new house, trying to figure out how to be while she gestates; another protagonist is described as being ‘inside a parenthesis, where nothing matters yet, no decisions need to be made.’ There are hotel rooms, holiday houses and rented flats, the interiors of cars crossing countries and continents.

And there are people who want to step out of their lives, or into a different version of their life: Evelyn, the mother in A Loving, Faithful Animal expects her ‘real life’ to show up ‘gleaming in the driveway’ of her house; the narrator of ‘Anything Remarkable’ keeps imagining her ‘better’ or ‘best’ life; the protagonist in ‘Post Structuralism for Beginners’, after leaving her family overnight, realises that her ‘whole life could be like this,’ when she wakes to the ‘extraordinary’ vision of mountains at dawn. ‘It might be that simple,’ says the narrator of ‘Horse Latitudes’: ‘stepping out of your life as if stepping out of a lift and onto an unfamiliar floor, adjusting your gait to something purposeful.’

These characters, though, aren’t even longing for home, or for permanence, stability, the finitude of an irreversible decision. They’re not exactly comfortable in their exile, inside their parentheses, but being in between is all they know, or all they’re capable of, for the time being, at least.

6. ‘It will be spectacular, an eerie sort of magic.’

Josephine Rowe’s stories are about beauty, moments of unexpected and lingering magic that interrupt or punctuate the everyday. Often, these are moments of immersion in a landscape, a vast one in which it is ‘important to feel small’ – as Fynn does in Scotland, as Naoishe does in her frozen wilderness – or they are moments of that mark a seasonality – like the migration of the phytoplankton in ‘Glisk’ or the moment in ‘Real Life’ where Jody insists he and the narrator take to just look at their beers before drinking them, and ‘appreciate that it’s really finally beer weather.’ Several characters find these moments looking at or into other people’s houses, or listening to sounds from neighbouring apartments. There are talismanic objects, and church bells that echo after they chime.

Here Until August closes with a story – shorter and simpler than the rest of the collection – that turns on such a piece of magic: a pond that has frozen around a stand of cattails, and then melted away, leaving only its surface sheet of ice ‘two inches thick and half an acre across, just levitating there.’ It is an ‘unlikely architecture’, entirely accidental, beautiful and unexpected, and it leaves the family that has found it in thrall: ‘We stand at the roadside looking out at it for ten or fifteen minutes, holding tight to our daughters’ the narrator states, ‘…Then we get back into the car and drive to your sister’s house, where the salmon is overdone and nothing extraordinary happens.’

The magic of the sheet of ice, though, is also that it cannot be captured – not in photographs, which pale in comparison, and not in metaphor, which is ‘rickety’ or ‘undermine[s]’ the fact of the thing itself. The narrator is desperate to see it as some kind of sign, and simultaneously skeptical of this desire, ‘to scratch,’ as they put it, ‘for evidence of predestination.’ And yet the reader knows that this magic has occurred ‘somewhere close to the end of things,’ and whatever it seems to promise must ultimately fail. The magic, though, is beautiful and momentous: it might not be ‘something you can trust your weight on’ but it’s something nonetheless sustaining, something that will continue to resonate across distance, and across time.

Works Cited
Josephine Rowe, Tarcutta Wake, UQP, 2012.
Josephine Rowe, A Loving, Faithful Animal, UQP, 2016.

Fiona Wright is a 2019-2020 recipient of an SRB JUNCTURE Fellowship. We’re grateful to the Ian Potter Foundation, whose support has made this JUNCTURE Fellowship program possible.

Published October 29, 2019
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her book of essays Small Acts...

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