Fold in the Map: Figuring Modernity in Gail Jones's Dreams of Speaking and Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter

By Wevers, Lydia | Australian Literary Studies, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Fold in the Map: Figuring Modernity in Gail Jones's Dreams of Speaking and Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter


Wevers, Lydia, Australian Literary Studies


IN the late 1980s Elizabeth Webby and I edited two anthologies of fiction by women writers from both sides of the Tasman: Happy Endings (1987) and Goodbye to Romance (1989). Elizabeth Webby has been one of very few academics in Australia or New Zealand to work on both literatures, despite their many shared interests. This essay, which explores the representation of modernity in the work of two contemporary trans-Tasman women writers, Gall Jones's Dreams of Speaking and Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter, is a tribute to her work.

Many of Knox's novels are predicated on imaginary or dream worlds and have traditional storytelling motifs. Her novel Black Oxen (2001) is an intricate narrative situated in a continent which resembles South America, and is based on a complex imaginary game Knox played with her sisters and friends as a child. (1) The main character of The Vintner's Luck (1998) is a fallen angel, and, as Knox has repeatedly described in interviews, the story of a Bourdeaux winemaker who meets an angel who came to her in a dream. In Daylight (2003), set in the south of France, a New Zealander on holiday becomes entangled with an underworld of vampires through a set of mysterious twin sisters. One of the determining characteristics of Knox's imaginary is the existence of synchronous worlds, interleaved or buried within each other, like, as she has said, 'that seam of joined seas that runs up from Cape Reinga ...' ('On Being' 32). Dreamhunter (2005) is her eleventh novel. (2)--a sequel, Dreamquake (2007), is not discussed here.

Dreamhunter is a fantasy novel for a readership which includes young adults, though it has also had a broad adult appeal. It is Knox's first book for teenagers, though she has often written from a young adult or child's point of view, especially in The High Jump, a trilogy of novellas (2001). Dreamhunter concerns two young girls who are cousins but have been brought up as sisters. They are about to undergo a trial to see if they can be dreamhunters. In their world--which is more like a province than a country, and is a scarcely disguised version of Golden Bay at the top of the South Island of New Zealand--there is a secret region known as The Place, which only some people can visit. The people who can enter The Place spend their time there sleeping and catching dreams, which they bring back for commercial gain. Some dreamhunters give public performances in a specially built amphitheatre called the Rainbow Opera; others use their dreams for different purposes. The two most famous dreamhunters are the mother and father respectively of the two girls, Rose and Laura. When the girls try out for entry to The Place (known as the Try) only Laura succeeds; she finds herself on a quest to find her father, who has mysteriously vanished, and to understand what it is that The Place is trying to tell her.

Dreamhunter is about a place which both is and is not Golden Bay; in The Place, the anticipated future and the buried past-in-the-future collide. Within these foldings are pointed reflections of modernity. In the Edwardian seaside world inhabited by Rose and Laura, the commodity culture of dreams originates from a landscape hidden in space, and its infrastructure, in turn, is linked to that which is hidden in time: forced, convict labour. The landscapes of Dreamhunter conform to what Zygmunt Bauman has described as a 'heavy' or 'solid' modernity--railways, prisons, factories, everything marked by the controlling and oppressive hand of the state. In contrast, Gail Jones's Dreams of Speaking, which rehearses many of the signature traits of modernity mourning, alienation, displacement--is located in 'light' or 'liquid' modernity, where time can be manipulated and space is transient.

Dreams of Speaking (2006) is Jones's third novel. A West Australian university teacher, Alice Black, is on leave in Paris researching a book called The Poetics of Modernity. On a train coming back from a visit to Chartres she falls into conversation with an elderly Japanese man, after they both recognise the song being played on someone's tinny radio, John Lennon's 'Instant Karma'. …

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