I read The Glade Within The Grove as yet more research related to my own book. Its about a commune set up in the late 1960s in NSW and it won the Miles Franklin award in 1997.
And what a hilarious, quirky, interesting satire it is. The story is narrated by Darcy D’Olivieras, an eccentric postman in his 60s who, on secondment to a rural post office called Obliqua Creek back in the 90s, discovers a manuscript called ‘The Ballard of Erinungara’ in a canvas post bag. Fancying himself as an amateur writer, Darcy decides to do some research and turn the story of Erinungara into a book.
Erinungara is a fictional valley somewhere near the NSW/Vic border that famous rock star Michael Ginnsy literally stumbles on when he loses his dog. Living in the valley are Gwen and Phryx, two old timers who show him the way out. Back in Sydney Ginnsy tells a group of people at a Martin Luther King wake about the valley, which they soon go in search of to set up the ultimate utopia, a commune.
We are introduced to all the characters up front, complete with what happens to them by the end, so there’s no plot trajectory around that, its more about getting to know these characters and how the commune comes to be set up.
And the characters are certainly memorable. There’s Monica, a Playboy centrefold from Alabama and her husband Calvin, a research scientist, his brother who has gone AWOL from Vietnam while on leave in Sydney, the two Zoshka sisters, Paula, a barmaid who is being pursued by journalist Brian Chegwodden, who is obsessed with her past sex life, and Diane, a teenage tearaway who gets dragged out of protests by the police. At the local rodeo, Diana meets and falls in love with Attis, a boy from a local logging family and these two form the axis around which the commune revolves.
The thing that is so striking about this book, that rings out from every page, is the lush, funny voice. Darcy has such a striking, unique one that David Foster has used him in two other novels before this one. Take this example, where Mehmed Contramundum is introduced:
‘These are the whiskers of a man who will never kiss a woman or consult a mirror, and the matutinal bowl of cold water, in which he undertakes ablution, and, later in the day, rinses the dishes and spoons from the day before, is both too ineffectually applied to his face and insufficiently warm to dissolve the residue of a diet based on dairy fats and pumpkin soups.’
Gross, but very effective. I’m not giving anything away by saying that Mehmed murders Gwen and Phryx in the valley defending the grove of old cedars, because its all given at the start in the list of characters and their fates.
Foster’s writing is very distinctly Australian, such as Darcy talking about his colleagues – ‘Singlets, we called him, he was never off your back. I did speak to the Union rep, but he did nothin. Mirrors, we called him. He was always going to look into it,‘, which may be why this book won the Miles.
But the voice really rings true when he’s describing the MacAnaspies, timber cutters and cattlemen who live up on a ridge overlooking the valley, which they own. There are five MacAnaspie boys, three of whom go to live in the commune, and the way they talk is straight out of 1970s country Australia that I remember from my childhood.
My main criticism of this is that there’s probably too many pages devoted to Etruscan civilisation, which I think Foster is trying to draw as a parallel to the commune. But its a minor quibble in what is a very funny book.