Books that fail to sizzle

Some summers ago while at our local village swimming pool a lady, unknown to me at the time, came up and said, ‘That book changed my life!’

‘That book’, the one that I was reading at the pool edge, was The White Earth by Andrew McGahan and I was about half-way through.

I looked up at this lady, who has since become a good friend, and replied, ‘I’m delighted to hear that because while I’m enjoying many aspects of it, I’m still waiting for the climax to occur and for something to really pull me into this story.

Following this exchange, I anticipated finding the essential and powerful message of this text. So, if I had been dawdling to this midway point, I was now motivated to pick up the pace, find the climax and enjoy the denouement and resolution.

It didn’t happen…

What went wrong?

This book, published in 2004 was a winner:

  • Festival Awards for Literature (SA), Dymocks Booksellers Award for Fiction, 2006: shortlisted
  • International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2006: longlisted
  • Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best Book, 2005: winner
  • Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2005: winner
  • The Age Book of the Year Award, Fiction Prize, 2004: winner
  • Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, Best Fiction Boo, 2004: shortlisted
  • The Courier-Mail Book of the Year Award, 2004: winner

How could I NOT find the satisfactory experience of this book that others had?

From the outset, I was captivated by the depiction of the quintessential Australian landscape. The very title of the book and the unfolding story-line in the first chapter created great expectations! I loved the oxymoron created by the image of the title, The White Earth and the raging fire that had such tragic consequences in the very opening pages.

Also talking about great expectations, moving on in to the story there was a Dickensian quality with the old dilapidated house at the centre of this tale with its mysteries and flash backs, you could almost sense the shadowy presence of Pip, Estella and Miss Haversham (another book and author I admire).

There were all the ingredients of epic storytelling including evocative descriptions of the landscape, such iconic figures as a doomed explorer searching for an inland sea, shepherds driven mad by isolation, a damaged survivor of Changi, mission Aborigines and even a bunyip.

I have often been charmed by this genre of prose and would name Voss by Patrick White, The Secret River by Kate Grenville and Landscape of Farewell by Alex Miller as examples of books around this subject that I have been captivated by.

Each of these books explore aspects of the unsettling period that denotes white settlement and colonisation in Australia and share similarities with The White Earth.

The supernatural aspect of McGahan’s tale where the ghosts of black and white haunt the landscape is echoed in Landscape of Farewell. The past haunts the characters in Miller’s book and his prose puzzles out the mystery of that haunting. Memories of Max’s childhood take over his dreams, and he gives these dreams an equal place in the narrative.

As a consequence, as the story moves forward it goes further into the past.  Its narrative structure carries Miller’s argument that history works by a strange interweaving of the present with the past. Likewise in McGahan’s book, the story switches back and forth between John’s past and William’s present. All the characters, including the house and the land, are harbouring secrets that will eventually be uncovered.

Similarly, White’s tale about Voss (based on the life of Ludwig Leichhardt) explores metaphysical aspects of relationship and communication. Interestingly both McGahan and White have the Darling Downs as a central location in their stories.

Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River is “dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future” and its genesis came from research regarding one of her ancestors, Solomon Wiseman and when he arrived on the Hawkesbury and started the business of ‘settling’. Initially intended to be a work of non-fiction about Wiseman, the book eventually became a fictional work based on her research into her ancestor but not specifically about him.

So I come to accept that reading and learning about the tragedy of the confrontation between aborigine and white settlers is a topic that I don’t shy away from. Although unsettled about the reality of this brutal epoch in our history, I am happy to engage with a book that captures with a language and storytelling that resonate with me.

McGahan maintains a sense of menace throughout his book and I felt like I was existing on the edge of a precipice, wondering whether I would plunge to the depths but find the awakening of enlightenment that would result. This would have be the defining moment for me to acknowledge that this book has been a great read. I was left teetering…

So, unlike my friend and many others, as I confessed at the beginning of this blog, this book did not provide me with a reading experience that I found powerful, unforgettable, and deeply engaging.

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