Tuesday, September 01, 2009

New books: Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath

In tomorrow's Australian Literary Review I have a piece reviewing four new (or, in one case, newish) Australian novels. They only have two things in common really -- they're all intensely region-specific, and they're all by women. Of the four, it's Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath that I confidently expect to turn up regularly in the longlists and shortlists of next year's literary awards.

Kennedy is an experienced and much-admired writer of short stories but this is her first novel, and of course inevitably someone has asked her about what far too many people see as the 'advance' from the short story to the novel, as if, in moving from the former to the latter, one had succeeded in one's OWLs and was now tackling one's NEWTs. Kennedy's answer to this, as quoted in the detailed, engaging interview that the SMH's Susan Wyndham published last weekend, appearing also in her Undercover blog, is maybe the best riposte to this short-story v. novel thing that I've ever seen in the whole thirtysomething years I've been being annoyed by it:

"I heard someone once say, 'You must feel different now that you've moved to the big pool from the toddler pool,' " she says of her change of form. "I quite bridled at this because I don't think the short story is a toddler pool. In a way it is more like the beautiful diving pool - it's not the shallow pool, it's the smaller pool that takes a lot of practice to do the one entry perfectly."

'The beautiful diving pool' -- how Katherine Mansfield would have loved that. And Chekhov, Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Alice Munro and who-all else.

The novel is reviewed in the new issue of Australian Book Review by Jo Case, who kind of likes it but says it's hard to get carried away by the plot because you're too aware of the structure. I can't agree with this. What I kept thinking was that the structure was intensely cinematic and was carrying me around the circuits of feeling among the characters while at the same time moving them and the action forwards. Topspin, as it were.

There are three main characters: the dizty leftover hippie Sandy, 45, henna'd devotee of decaf and hand-turned coffee mugs, still bravely making jewellery and selling it at a market stall in between massages and earnest conversations; Sandy's former partner Rich, a restless, rootless middle-aged man with a ponytail, a string of dead-end jobs and a long-held but never-realised ambition to be a successful professional photographer; and their daughter Sophie, fifteen, sullen, watchful, clever, tagged 'emo goth', whose father scarpered when she was a baby and therefore knows her not at all.

Both Sandy and Rich, even now, live in the faded glory of the high point of their lives: participation in the Franklin River Blockade 25 years earlier, a story to which Sophie has been subjected over and over while, she thinks bitterly, other kids got the Three Bears. (There's a stern message here for Boomers endlessly reliving their illusory glory days, though frankly all the Boomers I know, including me, are all too aware that the glory days were actually not all that glorious and are firmly focused on the present: on our financial survival in interesting times, on the longueurs and woes of our young adult children and our aged parents, and on our own increasingly unreliable and wonky bodies as bits and parts of them play up and wear out one by inexorable one. Types like Rich and Sandy are by no means unknown, but they're not typical, either.)

Anyway, the plot gets into second gear on Sophie's fifteenth birthday, when Rich rings her to wish her a happy birthday and suggests that he take her on a Tasmanian wilderness hike and bonding exercise on Cradle Mountain. Off they go to catch their plane to Hobart: third gear. But then things start to go wrong. Vroom.

From this point the narrative alternates between scenes of Rich and Sophie on the hiker trail and scenes of Sandy first at Mandala Holistic Wellness Centre and then, very worried after Rich and Sophie turn out not to be on their scheduled return flight, back at her own house surrounded by well-meaning alternative-living friends who keep trying to give her back rubs, read her tarot cards and help her think positive thoughts. Running in tandem with these changes of scene and the increasing tension and suspense they generate is the increasing subtlety with which everyone has begun to see everyone else: all three have been seeing each other in the light of cliché and caricature, and Kennedy manages very expertly the small shifts by which the characters begin to see each other as human beings with unexpected or hitherto unnoticed strengths and complexities.

In some ways Kennedy is working the same territory as Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap: contemporary domestic realism focusing on parenting and on conflicting cultural values. But there's less cultural diversity, fewer characters, less sex, more social history, and a better plot.


ThirdCat said...

"less sex"
Well, that wouldn't be hard, would it?

Also, that thing of getting asked about short story writing and novel writing as if it is some kind of graduation...children's writers who start writing for adults get asked this all the time too. Which is an equally bloody ridiculous question.

Loved that last post too, btw and made me rather homesick. Can't imagine it will be making it to the Abu Dhabi cinemas.

ThirdCat said...

By which I mean to say not that it's ridiculous to talk about the differences in technique and method and thought and so on that different forms require of writers and of readers, only that it's ridiculous to see it as some kind of 'graduation'.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Absolutely, on both counts.

I think you would think Beautiful Kate is wonderful. Never mind, there's always the DVD.

genevieve said...

Thanks for the tip off about the review - off to teh newsagent's.


Jo Case said...

I loved her quote in that interview with Susan, too. I do think the transition from novels to short stories is immensely interesting, but not because it's going from a lesser to a greater form - because it's so different.

Really interesting to hear your thoughts on this book, Kerryn, as you're one of the critics whose opinions I very much respect - and I don't disagree with any of the points you make on the book.

I didn't so much kind of like the book as love it for some reasons, but have reservations for others. (Which perhaps averages out to read as 'kind of like'.) It wasn't the superstructure of the book that (sometimes) obstructed my being carried away - by the story and characters, it was my awareness of the construction, in terms of microstructure. In places, I found myself admiring the sentences rather than inhabiting them, which distanced me as a reader.

I'm a huge fan of Cate's writing (and her as a person) and I hope that she gets lots of rave reviews. I do honestly think it's an impressive first novel with lots of interesting things to say about the way we live now in contemporary Australia and three very well drawn and empathetic characters.

I have to say that I was painfully aware of being an objective critic on this one and calling it exactly as I saw it, as I do like Cate so much, but didn't want my writing to be dictated by that in any way. An interesting dilemma for me as a still-fledgling critic.

Apologies for the long comment ...

Anonymous said...

Her analogy made me think, too, of the how the forms feel very different to write. A short-story really does feel like a high dive : there's tremendous exhilaration, not a little fear, and then the dive itself - pikes, twists, somersaults - for a moment you're almost defeating gravity - and then - (hopefully) a smooth entry. A novel on the other hand, is more like swimming laps: arm over arm over arm...& at the end (if you manage to stay afloat)your goggles are usually full of water...

Looking forward to reading the novel -- it sounds wonderful - and I love her stories.

wendy james

Anonymous said...

er...not that I've actually ever done anything more daring than jump off one of those high tower thingies.
But, you know, I've dreamt about it...


Rosie said...

That's was very nice post and very good pictures to show how beautiful is Australia. Thanks author for sharing the post.
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