This is the fourth in my quick summer series of Australian novels. It’s potentially a controversial addition when placed alongside Jasper Jones, The Submerged Cathedral and All That I Am. And yet. I love the bizzare. I’m a sucker for a novel that plays with form and concepts. I really, really loved this book.
It’s a wonderfully inventive dystopia, told with a light heartedness and a dark, tongue in cheek sense of humour that reminded me of Will Self. It is the “near future” 2030ish and Melbourne is a tropical ruin. Displaced people camp on the bank of the river, scrounging for what they can get to eat and drink, water is precious and expensive. But there are some good days – when the 11.30am Flinders Street train arrives at 2.45pm as promised let no-one say the trains don’t run on time. Caddy is writing a story. She’s faring no better, or worse, than most. At least she has a friend. Ray.
Ray is a wheeler and dealer. He always has a business scheme in the works. He’s stumbled on some maps that are, well, a bit different. Via them he finds his way to Sarah and Simon in San Fransisco. In 1997. Sarah and Simon are on a quest. To stand in every 25 foot square in the US. They also have a map but it’s just a regular one.
Rawson’s writing is down to earth, funny, conversational. She focuses on the minutia of Caddy’s life and hints that the rest of the world isn’t faring any better. And so running through the novel’s desperate half-smile is a thick seam of individual loss; the grief that Caddy suffers is being experienced a billion times over in a pieced together, ongoing series of personal and global catastrophes. It is a post-climate-change future with a very real and enduring human spirit. It is nostalgic, romantic and political in the most off-hand way. Above all it elevates imagination, with the power comfort, strengthen and to create new worlds and whole personalities. Sometimes those “imaginums” are abandoned and sometimes all it takes is an idea to change reality. Maybe it’s the only thing that ever has.
On July 16, 1945, the edges of the world blurred. Atoms spilled their guts and burst the limits of their size, swelled with their new limitless, ate everything around them in a fraction of a second then everything around that and around that until they realised that, wait a moment, there were still limits after all. Collapsing in upon themselves, the atoms gripped and fell, tearing the seams of the world as they tumbled back into gravity. Things shifted. Ideas fell through the rents.
In Boston, a printing press caught for an eternal second, feeling the thoughtquake. Time paused, thinking it was dead, then felt its heart remember how to beat. The press shook itself awake then continued on in the remade world.[…]
Maps fell from the presses, were folded and tied, marked SECRET when they were and sometimes when they weren’t, put in boxes, sent by rail and boat to the fronts.
Meanwhile the fronts had felt that sliding, felt the word “front” lose it’s precision, smear over everything, and the lines sagged a little knowing it was time to give up the glory.
There was a moment in the last third that hit me like a punch in the stomach and I had to reread that line several times before I could move on. I still don’t quite know why. I’m really surprised I was so affected by this novel. I hadn’t considered it high literature, whatever that may be, nor a tear-jerker when I picked it up. But it moved me. It’s one that I’d like to reread and I don’t do that often. More importantly, I’m really looking forward to what Rawson comes out with next.
Read it if: you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you love the conceptual, just give it a go.