Academic journal article Antipodes

Soundings from Down Under

Academic journal article Antipodes

Soundings from Down Under

Article excerpt

IN MY VIEW, THE THREE LEADING prose stylists working today in Australia are Gerald Murnane, Brenda Walker, and Nicholas Jose. Walker's fourth novel, The Wing of Night (Penguin Australia) is a new kind of war novel, as most of the action takes place in Western Australia, and is centered around Elizabeth Zettler, a widow of a soldier killed at Gallipoli. Yet this is not a "home front" novel; it is about war. As always, Walker writes astonishingly well. Her prose is spare and her sentences tend to be short. But this is not the modernist austerity of Hemingway, Pinter, Peter Cowan, or even Willa Gather; it is austerity as practiced as part of the art of prose, and it is a lush austerity, a rich austerity, which leads one to realize that so many contemporary writers practice a dried-out verbosity. (Walker wrote her dissertation on Beckett, and she has spoken of Beckett and Poe as influences on her style-perhaps pointing to the general nature of her prose's lush austerity).

This is also a novel with the courage to risk sadness, and to not back down in the face of death. Not only are the war scenes grippingly and unyieldingly evoked, but the home front in the aftermath of the war-the action, beginning in 1914, extended until 1922-is not made to be reparative or atoning for the war's depredations when it so easily could have been. Another risk Walker takes is shifting around in time; indeed, in this book she does this in a far more sinuous way than in her previous novel, Poe's Cat, this book achieves a symphonic modulation between levels of time, or a quantized equilibrium. Something else very experimental about this book is the way a female author writes so insightfully and determinedly about male experience, the experience of war then, on the front, being totally male, though the women at home are just as affected by war's events. (I am wording it this way because of the presence of women in today's armies; I wonder if Walker thinks this makes war different even if most women soldiers are in noncombat roles). Elizabeth's husband dies in the war; his death recorded, unexpectedly and unmelodramatically, on page 76.

The novel starts out with what we think is an "upstairs/downstairs" pairing, Elizabeth and her husband, Louis Zettler (of German background, but does the name also connote "settler"?), are socially well-above Bonnie Fairclough and her sweetheart joe Tully. Joe comes back from the war, but is shell shocked and traumatized. Elizabeth and Bonnie become friends, across class boundaries, and then Elizabeth is disconcerted to find that Bonnie is marrying her widowed father, Ramsay. Ramsay is a multidimensional character, far from benign, and is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. (Has anyone ever noticed that fathers who outlive people of their children's generation are somewhat of a leitmotif in Australian literature? Think of Frank Harland in David Malouf's Harland's Half Acre.) Eventually, Joe Tully resurfaces in the neighborhood, and begins an affair with Elizabeth. The denouement avoids any sense of reparation or reconstitution. Yet, though the novel does not hide from both death and the aftereffects of death, which also constitute a kind of death, there is (instead of reparation) at the end a moving sense of life's vulnerability, of the way tenderness and emotional exposure both leave us open to suffering and also provide the only consolation for it. I had to choose between ten different passages to come up with this sample that I hope will give the reader some idea of the intensity and severity of the prose:

The hospital ship moved at its anchorage and the wounded lay shoulder to shoulder on the lighters that carried diem away from the shore. The men adjusted unthinkingly to the motion of the sea. They were wet-eyed and sleepless. Some had broken teeth from biting into the hard biscuits in their rations. Some had shattered ribs, or the contents of their pockets had been blown into their bellies and their internal workings with shreds of photographs and metal scraps. …

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