It’s1970 and sisters Marlo and Skip have been shipped off to live with their Aunty Noreen Puce in the South Australian town of Craters Lakes, after their mother is committed to an asylum. Marlo has a copy of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and is fond of confronting difficult life questions by asking herself – ‘What would Germaine do?’. The girls find their immensely overweight aunt spends most of her time eating and listening to the racist and sexist jokes of local greyhound bus driver.
But when they arrive, Marlo is devastated to discover she won’t be finishing school as planned, but is to be drafted into the family hardware shop to do the books. There she meets ‘wog’ Pavel Novak, a young man who will soon be called up to go to Vietnam, like their missing cousin. Skip befriends little brother Honza, once he separates himself from the pack of juvenile delinquents who terrorise the rest of the school. The two girls are soon drawn into the intrigues of the town, centered around a group who meet at the Pavel’s home to launch a local dramatic group.
I’ve read some brilliant Australian stories in the last few weeks, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them. I think its greatest flaw is that it doesn’t know what sort of a story it’s trying to be. Cameron Woodhead in the SMH criticised it as a case of good politics (the Vietnam anti-war and women’s liberation movements) making bad art and that those two movements are slapped onto the plot. But in fact they barely rate a mention after the first page.
The strongest aspect of this story is the portrayal of a country childhood and the endless boredom that comes from living in a place where there’s little for teenagers to do. The scenes among the 12-year-olds at school are the best of the story. Rain seems to have lovingly constructed a town of his actual or imagined childhood, but what is missing is an attachment to the characters, though they are very well drawn. And while it is great to read about a setting that is so familiar to me, there’s just too much of it and it feels self-indulgent. The period detail is excellent though, if relying a bit too heavily on brand names.
The SMH review is spot on about one of the other major flaws of this book. Rain persistently has his provincial, parochial characters show themselves to be unrelentingly racist, sexist and homophobic. This is realistic and yet it feels very superficial because the characters who say these things are so two-dimensional and peripheral, we don’t know them at all. So the cringeworthy stories just come out as sounding like the author making the same point over and over again – many country Australians in the 1970s were very bigoted. At one point, Rain also perpetuates what feels like an accidental racist image of his own, when an Aboriginal character ‘melted into the dark’. Or perhaps I’m being too harsh here.
I would have liked to know more of the turmoil the two girls, who have experienced their mother being sectioned. What it does instead is veer into an ending that I can only describe as high farce, centreing on the mysterious town golden boy, who has disappeared years earlier, whose life experiences feel very improbable and made up of what feels like deliberately salacious detail. All of this is relayed as backstory in a rush before we get to the climax, but not having any exposure to the character before this point, its impossible to care about him at all.
There’s also quite a bit of clunky dialogue, and some phrases like ‘erect of carriage’ thrown into the 12-year-old’s third person point of view. Then the prose swings into very distant omniscient narrator purpleness – There is a plangency in the fall of evening, as light seeps from the sky and darkness comes.’ There’s more in the same vein, which never feels attached to a character. The author draws a parallel between an Ibsen play (I’ve never read it so doesn’t mean much to me) and the fate of the fallen golden boy and small towns in general, that feels very forced indeed, culminating in a spectacular life-threatening set piece involving all of the characters.
The whole thing just doesn’t work on so many levels and has given me lots to think about in terms of my own story. I do wonder if other readers will really enjoy it though, as I try to fathom the mystery that is the modern publishing industry.