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Found by Trouble

The Everlasting Sunday is the first novel from Robert Lukins, a Melbourne writer with a background in journalism, and it’s an entirely distinctive debut: rich with atmosphere, beguiling in its blend of lyricism and quiet menace. Lukins has pointed to a year spent working as a village postman in Shropshire as his inspiration for the rural English setting, here cast in the stark monochrome of an unusually harsh winter. By contrast, the stories collected in Moreno Giovannoni’s Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese take place in the hills of Tuscany – a world coloured by turns in scorching sun and unrelenting fog. Giovannoni was born in San Ginese but grew up in rural Victoria, and has worked for many years as a freelance translator. The manuscript of Fireflies of Autumn was the first winner of the Deborah Z. Cass prize for writing by Australian writers from migrant backgrounds. The authors share a lyrical sensibility and a finely-tuned sense of how the fantastical and the mundane, the hopeful and the brutal, are woven together in the stories which define our communities.

The Everlasting Sunday is the story of Radford, seventeen-years-old when he is sent to a home for juveniles in the aftermath of an unspecified incident of violence. It is the English winter of 1962-1963 – a winter so record-breakingly cold that it was known as the Big Freeze – and the home is Goodwin Manor, an unconventional, even chaotic place of refuge for adolescent boys who have been ‘found by trouble’.

Those were the words the man from the government had used: found by trouble. He had been addressing Radford’s mother and in that instant the boy had wanted more than anything to be able to injure time, to go back and remove what it had witnessed; to unstitch this ill that had found him.

The nature of this ill is not made clear to the reader until the end of the novel – even then it remains shrouded in some mystery – and indeed, how Radford got to the Manor will prove far less important than the impact of the months he spends there. The residents of Goodwin, Radford finds, do not enquire of one another why they are there; instead, a kind of anonymity reigns, as each boy arrives trailing his own history, his own particular trouble, and is free to leave it at the door on the way in. The Manor is, for a time at least, the centre of the boys’ world, and it hardly matters what happened beyond its walls but for the fact that it brought them to this place.

When we first meet Radford, he is mistrustful, defensive and suspicious; while capable of charming extroversion when he wants to be, he enters Goodwin determined to remain aloof, and to protect himself from any human connection. Yet, intuitive and observant, he cannot ultimately resist the pull of the boys by whom he is surrounded; he is seduced by their defencelessness, their embrace of him, and the restless energy they share during this formative winter when time seems to have stopped, the world having ground to a freezing halt around them. Lukins’s exploration of adolescent masculinity, with all the camaraderie and vulnerability it entails, is sensitive and thoughtful. He depicts the small kindnesses, the unspoken traumas, and tentative rapprochements that slowly draw Radford out of his shell.

The Manor is overseen by a man named Teddy, a not-quite-fatherly figure whose peculiar mixture of benevolence and authority holds the community of Goodwin together. Many of the assumptions a contemporary reader may bring to the story of a single man, odd to the point of eccentricity, running a mid-century home for troubled boys without much apparent oversight, are entirely undercut by Lukins’s nuanced portrait. More than anything, Teddy seems like a boy who might once have been at Goodwin Manor himself – prone to periods of great energy and deep depression, he subjects the boys to challenges that occasionally border on cruelty yet is also fiercely protective of them. ‘Teddy will have his little edicts,’ Radford is assured, ‘They’re only to keep the game alive, nothing to be frightened of.’ And what is the game? At first glance we might think, as Radford does, that Teddy intends to teach the boys resilience, hard-headedness, so that each might learn from the ‘trouble’ that has found him and brought him to Goodwin.

‘I’m answerable to myself. I’m the only one who can take responsibility, I know.’

‘My god, no.’ Teddy took Radford’s hand in his. ‘Who told you that? What a pile of arse. How are you supposed to look after yourself? You’re a sad little ant. A child. Do you not see? You’re to look after each other.’

If there is much darkness at Goodwin – the violence which has brought so many of the boys to its doors intrudes often enough, and the winter will not pass without tragedy – there is also the powerful solace of friendship.

Lukins is an assured writer, weaving ghostly imagery of a snap-frozen English countryside into the measured, seductive pace of his narrative to beautifully ominous effect. ‘Winter explored its creation, in every direction white, flying on its arrows through the spaces in trees and animals.’ The boys of Goodwin Manor are vividly drawn, full of life: West, first encountered, is ‘a boy who filled the hall with a fair, nauseating energy’; as Radford gets his bearings in the crowded Manor, the bodies of the boys ‘maraud’, ‘huddle’ and ‘charge’ through corridors and down stairs. The novel’s peculiar, poignant balance of hopefulness and resignation, possibility and deprivation, empathy and violence, is captured in one of the boys’ favourite pastimes. Ploughing through the silent, stark-white woods to the cemetery, sipping from an illicit bottle of liquor as they go, the boys challenge one another to tell the stories of the bodies that lie under the hard-frosted ground. The wilder, the more convolute and unbelievable the better: tales of adventure, triumph and misfortune. In these stories they imagine other lives, other ways of being in the world – from the heroic to the ridiculous – far from their own.

The nominal narrator of the stories collected in Fireflies of Autumn is Ugo Giovannoni, an elderly migrant from the town of San Ginese, now living in Australia; the stories find their way onto the page by virtue of Ugo’s partnership with a fellow sanginesini referred to only as ‘The Translator’, whose own story of migration bookends the collection. Approaching the end of his life in a country far from that of his birth, Ugo records a history that might otherwise be lost entirely.

Some of these tales, dear reader, are set in the olden days, some in more recent times. All the tales are true, most of them unfold in a hamlet of San Ginese called Villora. You may search for a map and images of this place and they will exist, but you will never find it. Just as migrants do not ever truly arrive at their destination, so those who remain behind disappear and become untraceable.

The relationship between the real and the fictional, the remembered and the imagined, is at the heart of this collection. Stories are frequently accompanied by mementos: photos of individuals, buildings and items which appear within them. The cumulative effect of these is to create a kind of documentary-fiction, as the stories of a town percolate through its community, shape-shifting, taking on new voices; turning townspeople into legends, lived events into fables.

The stories of San Ginese jump back and forth in time, weaving in and out of the houses within the village, introducing here and there characters who do not reappear until many pages further on. Without the town the stories cannot exist; without the stories, the town cannot exist, even as its inhabitants spread themselves across the globe. All – or almost all – will eventually return. The experience of migration defines San Ginese, affecting every family in one way or another. Villagers migrate to America or Australia or elsewhere, and then return, tracing a well-worn path across the oceans and back again. ‘Migrants never arrive at their destination’ reads the collection’s epigraph, echoed by Ugo above – and what is that destination? The site to which they are migrating? The home to which they are returning? Even if a migration is not permanent in the physical sense, can the home from which one has departed, however briefly, be reclaimed?

Yes, [the men of San Ginese] went to America and yes, they made money, if they were lucky but their hearts broke. They caught a disease, a deep sadness that afflicted soldiers fighting away from home, soldiers who were otherwise fit, a homesickness that killed them, whether they stayed or returned home.

The experience of migration, it seems, effects a severing that can never be repaired, whether or not the migrant arrives at his nominal destination or returns to the place from which he set off.

Giovannoni’s prose is deceptively simple, with a folk-tale like rhythm, his stories layered one upon another, by turns tragic and romantic, ridiculous and shocking, magical, murderous and mundane. There is Tommaso the Killer, waiting half a lifetime to exact revenge on the man who stole his fortune and his future as they laboured together in California. There is Tista, ‘the first to leave’, beginning the town’s great pattern of migration. There is Bucchione, independent, strong and principled, a man whom the whole of San Ginese would (and does) follow anywhere, yet who is haunted by the Angel of Sadness. There are Liudina and Mariella, left behind by handsome, selfish parents who disappeared to far-off America never to be heard from again.

The two imbecile sisters were stunned by the cold and the hunger and the deep disappointment of their lives – their imbecility, the disappearance across the ocean of their beautiful mother and handsome father, the death of their aunt, the loss of their cow and their chickens and their goose, the devastation of their garden and the sterility of their fig tree – and they sat, they sat, holding each other by the hand, just inside the door of their freezing, crumbling, clay-brick house, looking out, sat, guarding their tree, sat, waiting for spring, sat, waiting for the fig to produce fruit, sat, their eyes large and round and sunken in their sockets, sat, their lips thin and the skin stretched with hunger across their cheeks, sat together, sat, waiting.

If San Ginese is the place to which people return, it is also the place where people are left behind.

In ‘The Enchanted Glade and the Babbling Brook’, the entire population of San Ginese – except for Julio the Orphan – abandon their homes and walk to the nearby town of Compito, escaping the crossfire of the second world war. There they enter a kind of fairy-tale, sleeping through the day and spending their nights in drinking, eating and sensuality. Recalling those fabled wanderers lured into the hillside for a night’s dancing only to emerge hundreds of years later, the villagers of San Ginese very nearly don’t return. In the present day, a man known only as ‘The Visitor’ wanders the streets of Villora, searching for spectres of the past. What he finds is a new era of migration: here a house is being renovated by a family from Albania; here a boy from Morocco rides his bike along the quiet streets. The waves of migration do not end, only shift in shape, as towns – even this town hovering on the edge of myth – change their faces. Migration, like history, is about remembering. The Translator cannot remember San Ginese, yet he is arguably more deeply connected to its stories than those of the country in which he has spent the better part of his life. Memories, recounted to him, become collective, as he comes to realise that his own role has been to forget precisely so that this collective remembering can occur.

The people of San Ginese are migrants by virtue of their fated place within the span of twentieth-century history, the economic forces and the conflicts which force them beyond the confines of their town to seek their fortunes. The lives of their youth are made a ‘human sacrifice’ to the future; having made this sacrifice they return, no longer young, to a home which is no longer home, afflicted with a permanent sense of rootlessness. The boys of Goodwin Manor are likewise rootless, cast out from their homes in sacrifice to the various kinds of trouble by which they have been found. It may be a blessing or a tragedy that this unconventional institution is at one and the same time a brief waystation in their lives, and the only true home some will ever know.