David Malouf: Fly Away Peter (1982)

There really are numerous ways to write about war. While some elements will always remain the same – especially when one of the novel’s themes are the trenches of WWII – accomplished authors, will still find a way to write something completely new. David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter is an excellent example for this.

Being an Australian writer Malouf writes about the war from the Australian perspective which works on two very different levels. One focuses on the land and nature, the other on the people. I have a feeling I would have overread a lot if I hadn’t seen so many Australian WWI movies and read Charlotte Wood’s stunningly beautiful The Submerge Catherdral (here).

It seems to be a trademark of a lot of Australian writing to emphasize the beauty and uniqueness of the flora and the fauna of the continent. Much of it must seem like paradise to the inhabitants and so it’s not surprising Malouf starts the book with the description of nature. Jim Saddler, a young Australian who has never been outside of the country, knows more than anyone about birds. He lies hidden in the marshes and watches them for hours. Ashley Crowther, another young man, but from a very different background, has returned from England where he went to university and come back to take care of his vast family estate. The marshes are part of it. When the two men meet, something almost miraculous happens. Without knowing Jim, Ashley senses the knowledge and the passion he has for birds and offers him a job. This is a dream come true for Jim, a man from a very modest background. The plan is to turn the marshes into a bird sanctuary and Jim will work there, observing, making lists.

While observing one of the rare birds, Jim meets Imogen, an English woman who arrived in Australia not long ago, and has decided to stay here. She is a photographer and earns a living with nature photography.

When the war breaks out none of the three characters thinks at frist it has a lot to do with Australia but in the end, the two men sign up. Of course Ashley will be an officer, while Jim becomes just a simple soldier.

Once in France, the tone and style of the book changes considerably. During the first half of the book, Malouf’s writing was poetic and the structure of the sentences unconventional but when he starts to describe the horror of the war, the writing, moves into the background and is more conventional.

Most of what is described from Jim’s point of view, we know from other WWI novels; the rats, the mud, the corpses, the gas. That is not new but what is new is how the earth is evoked which leads to comparisons. The rich earth of the Australian marshes produced so much beauty, here the earth swallows up everything, they all sink into it in the end.

One of my favourite war movies, Beneath Hill 60,  describes the contribution of Australian miners to WWI. Something the film directors chose to leave out, is mentioned in the book. While digging the tunnel systems beneath Hill 60 and arriving at the enemy lines, the miners discovered the skeleton of a  mammoth.

Jim is a witness of this discovery. It’s a key scene in the novel as it is an example of continuity.

It was a great wonder, and Jim stared along with the rest. A mammoth, thousands of years old. Thousands of years dead. It went back to the beginning, and was here, this giant beast that had fallen to his knees so long ago, among the recent dead, with the sharp little flints laid out beside it which were also a beginning. Looking at them made time seem meaningless. (….)

Continuity is a major theme of the book, continuity and opposites. The land and nature exist and will always exist. They are endless while humanity is not and the individual man even less so. Man creates opposites, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the cowardly and the heroic, they all take place inside of the continuity.

The mammoth is a symbol for this and so are Imogen’s photos. At the end of the novel she thinks about how she met Jim. She captured a bird on a  photo while he captured it in his mind. The bird is long gone and so is the picture in Jim’s mind because Jim is gone, but it’s still here, as she remembers both and there is still the photo as well.

It’s hard to do justice to a book like Fly Away Peter in a short post. I hope I was able to convey the beauty and make you curious to find out for yourself. I couldn’t help but had to compare it to two other shorter WWI novels we read last year, Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting (here is the review) and How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston (here is the review). While the latter will always be my favourite, Fly Away Peter is excellent as well and adds another dimension. It contains a rich a meditation and philosophical exploration of WWI from an Australian perspective which is well worth reading.

Have you read David Malouf? Which is your favourite of his books?

The review is a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge as well as to War Through the Generations.

If you’d like to read another review, Danielle hast posted about it here.

Charlotte Wood: The Submerged Cathedral (2004)

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s lyrical novel The Submerged Cathedral caught me unawares. Reading it felt at times like daydreaming. It has a hypnotic and very gentle quality that isn’t easy to put into words. It is highly symbolical and complex but still down to earth. The voice and choice of themes are so unusual, I’m really glad I discovered it on Kim’s blog last year (here).

The novel has four parts, each dedicated to a year – 1963, 1964, 1975, 1984 – covering twenty years in the lives of Jocelyn and Martin.

In part I Jocelyn and Martin meet and fall deeply in love. It’s the 60s and concubinage is far from being accepted. Jocelyn who already turned down one man, doesn’t want to get married but she wants to live with Martin. When they meet she is working as a copy editor and proofreading the manuscript of The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australia. The parts which speak the most to Jocelyn are those dedicated to the flora of Australia. The beauty and mystery of all these plants that are unique to this part of the world are a major theme. While reading about them Jocelyn becomes aware of them and decides she would love to create a garden, a garden unlike the English garden her mother used to have. Hers should be a garden with Australian plants only.

Martin is a doctor, a doctor who is much more of a healer than a surgeon. He can almost feel what is wrong with people before they tell him and knows what they need to recover. He is very taken with Jocelyn and her idea and wants to help her build the garden.

The time they spend together in his house is idyllic. They sit on the porch, talk about their plans, go swimming. It’s peaceful and harmonious until the day Ellen, Jocelyn’s older sister, announces she will come back to Australia. She has been living in London with her husband and her daughter. Her husband’s violence is driving her away.

Why the strong and courageous Jocelyn who doesn’t even fear to be a social outcast, lets her sister take over her life and dictate her every move, is hard to understand for anyone who has never been entangled in a dysfunctional family system. I know what this is like and although I read with shock how the beauty is crushed and the relationship between Martin and Jocelyn is put to a test it doesn’t pass, I could relate. It made me gasp and infuriated me but I felt that Jocelyn couldn’t act any other way under those circumstances. At the end of part I a tragedy happens after which Jocelyn leaves Martin.

The next three parts of the novel follow them in their journey from grief to healing and beyond. Jocelyn chooses to follow Ellen to London. Martin joins a convent. All through the novel the themes of love, religion, nature and gardens are undergoing different variations.

What I liked so much about this book is the way it is written. It has the capacity to draw you in. It speaks to your emotions much more than your intellect. I felt like a spectator who was captivated and then became part of the story because Charlotte Wood really shows everything, she doesn’t tell a lot. We don’t only think that Ellen’s sister is destructive, abusive and a liar, we experience it. This is amazingly artful. It’s also never said why Martin joins a convent but we learn to understand. The same goes for the description of the Australian flora and Jocelyn’s urge to create a garden that guides and haunts her until she finally gets the opportunity to follow her dream.

I would love to visit Australia because it is so unique, because it has landscapes and plants and animals that you find nowhere else in the world. If you share this fascination, you will love this book. It is a hymn to the beauty of that continent but it is also a hymn to love. Pure unconditional love. Last but not least it has  a religious theme that is as important as the nature element. The gardens of the Bible are mentioned and alluded to, Eden and Gethsemane. Antonement and pilgrimage are other key themes. While Martin tries to make sense as a recluse, Jocelyn is living like a pilgrim.

The Submerged Cathedral is a very subtle novel, very alluring and despite its gentleness very powerful. It seems to have been created in a timeless zone.

Part III in which Jocelyn travels through Europe with a garden architect has the appeal of a travel novel. They stay in France and Spain and while visiting Parque Güell in Barcelona, Jocelyn has a vision. The title The Submerged Cathedral refers to Debussy’s La cathedral engloutie. Seeing Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia reminds her of this piece of music. When she sees Gaudí’s church, everything is tied together; her idea of an Australian garden, the organic forms of Gaudí’s work, the dryness of the Spanish earth. Her journey is fulfilled and she returns to Australia.

I liked this book a lot. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Several tragedies happen between these pages that each made me put the book aside for a while. But there were equally passages of great beauty that also made me put the book aside. I wanted those pages to linger just a little while longer.

I would like to read more of Charlotte Wood’s books but they are not available outside of Australia at the moment. Animal People sounded like a novel I would love. Here is the link to her website if you’d like to explore.

The Submerged Cathedral is my second contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2012.

Here is a wonderful and very subtle analysis of the novel which I found on Nike Sulway’s blog Lost for Words: The Submerged Cathedral.

John Marsden: Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) An Australian Page-turner

When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong–horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured–including their families and all their friends. Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: They can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

Sometimes you want to read for pure entertainment, something that is fast-paced, action-packed but still interesting. Tomorrow, When the War Began is exactly like that, a real page-turner. I discovered the book on Jenclair’s blog last year and am really glad I read it. I am not too much into  series but this start into the Tomorrow Series was really gripping. Too bad that it isn’t an independent book. It’s rather a series in the spirit of the TV series Lost. It always ends when it’s most supenseful, when something big happens. You really have to go on reading if you want to know what’s going to happen next. Jenclair has read all the books meanwhile. You can find her second review here.

Ellie and her friends go camping instead of participating in a cattle show that takes place during Commemoration Day. They make a trip into the Australian mountains and discover a place that very possibly no one has ever seen before. Or only one person, a hermit, who is said to have lived there. The hermit is a man who has been accused of the murder of his wife and baby and escaped into the mountains.

The place they discover is enchanted. It seems to belong to another world, untouched by civilization. They enjoy their stay a lot and leave only reluctantly. When they arrive at their homes, the coming back is a brutal one. Their houses and farms have been abandoned, their animals are dead or dying. Bit by bit they discover that Australia has been invaded and all the people are captives.

The adventures that follow are numerous and dangerous. They first need to find out what happened, then they need to make decisions. How are they going to live and where? How will they hide, what will they eat? It seems natural that they return to the hidden place in the mountains. The country is swarming with foreign soldiers and every expedition is a trial.

We never hear who has invaded the country but we learn why. People in neighbouring poor countries couldn’t accept that a lot belongs to a few rich people and they came to redistribute what is here.

What I liked particularly is the setting. I have never been to Australia but I have seen movies and it is a country whose landscape fascinates me. The setting is rendered very well, in a very descriptive manner. I liked the exploration of topics like war, murder, social justice and injustice. I was just wondering for a moment if it is ethical, to base a book on the idea that poor people or a poor country could act in such an aggressive way. I think what Marsden had in mind, was raising the awareness that there are people less well off than those in the Western hemisphere. Another question that arose was whether they would have the military power to invade.

The characters are not all equally well drawn, two stay a bit schematic but that may change in the future books, maybe they will be more developed.

If you want to read something that is really absorbing, this is a good choice.

Did I mention it is a YA novel? I often enjoy the topics they explore and this is no different. Part one of the series has been made into a film. I haven’t seen it, no idea if it is any good.

Do you like series and if so which ones?