Academic journal article Antipodes

Beachcombing for Beautiful Shells

Academic journal article Antipodes

Beachcombing for Beautiful Shells

Article excerpt

FICTION Beachcombing far Beautiful Shells Nicholas Jose. Paper Nautilus. Adelaide: Wakefield P, 2006. 157 pp. A$19.95. ISBN 1-8625-4733-5

It's tempting to explore the suggestive title image of Nicholas Jose's recently reprinted Paper Nautilus (first published in 1987). An octupus-like creature that survives in the open ocean, the paper nautilus lives inside a spiral-shaped shell comprised of chambers the nautilus seals off one after another as it grows out into a new chamber. In chapter one, set in 1965 Australia, we witness JackTregenza give away in marriage his niece, Penny, and then we read successive chapters arranged in reverse chronological order (1961, 1953, and so on). In reading back through Jack's life, patient readers feel like they are exploring deep into the chambers in Jack's life, and only in reaching the deepest, the earliest, chambers do we finally understand Jack.

He is, admittedly, an unpromising novel protagonist. A steady, middle-aged bachelor whose life revolves around his niece, he appears equally uninspired and uninspiring. We fear he provides thin material for, say, hiding the answers to complex mysteries of the human heart or covering up the secrets of guilty crimes. However, readers familiar with Jose's fiction already know that active protagonists do not usually find success or happiness. Jack's younger brother, Peter, for example, who is flashy, athletic and charismatic, dies quickly from cholera while in a tropical hospital at the end of World War II. Steady, plodding Jack, in contrast, survives horrifying years in a Japanese prison camp. In one of the novel's best moments, when the two brothers meet in a field hospital near the end of the war, Peter leans over the emaciated body of Jack and implores, "Breathe!" Jack breathes, but when Peter dies shortly after this, Jack vows to live his life in survival mode: "He would live his life, setting it down according to his own drifting work and pattern, like a white unfurling scroll or a paper nautilus edging shorewards one year in seven, seeking completion" (137).

After his return home from the war in 1945, Jack takes an unchallenging desk job and settles in to weather the rest of his life. He cultivates it "according to his own drifting work and pattern" by staying distant from everybody around him while he exists in a type of stasis that soothes his tortured soul. …

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