The more he walks the more he has the feeling of repeat; not deja vu exactly but the sense of being in a loop. It’s the sameness of all these houses. He’s just been congratulating himself for making good time. Glad that he’s getting somewhere. But walking along he thinks maybe there is nowhere for him to get to, no place beyond, just this same exhausting slideshow of tidy towns, slip roads, asphalt and fibro. Drip fed, brick veneer lives clustered along highways.
Nearly the entirety of this book is highlighted in my kindle but I’m still not sure I know what it’s about. A poster-child for the unreliable narrator, an unfathomably large portrait of Australia told through a series of vignettes, a road story, a psychological study, a nightmare. This is a strange, strange novel.
Our narrator has been released from jail. He is making his way home, somewhere “out west”, by hitchhiking and surviving on scraps and the goodwill of strangers. He tells us his name is Frank. He has a photograph of a boy, a house, somewhere. It is “home”. But the photograph is one he found. Every story he tells the drivers that pick him up is a borrowed one. There is no version of the truth that is not lost or too dangerous to tell. We are propelled along with Frank, on his journey to who knows where, but we’re as in the dark as to who he is as anyone. His dreams and memories overlaps seamlessly with reality. We’re not sure he’s a bad guy, but how would we know? Even his name is one he picked up along the way.
The road’s not open, or wonderful. He moves because he can’t do anything else. At first he thought it was just from getting out. Suddenly having no boundary. But he’s beginning to think there’s something mean in him that can’t rest. Half his life washes over him then, horror at his lost time, in a sharp flood. He’s really fucked it up so far. He swallows. Maybe you can’t ever go back home. But jail will always have you.
Mills’ style is just amazing. Her attention to detail, her very careful placement of words and concepts, is so minute. So painstaking. I enjoyed her tone and the way she allowed the reality, memory, misremembered ideas and forgotten past to swirl together, all eddies in the same river. She crafts a story that is out of focus, but intense. Suspenseful. A little disturbing. What I didn’t enjoy so much was the lack of direction. Even though Frank’s destination wasn’t clear to him, that his learning curve was to discover his own self-directed freedom, the forward momentum was frustrating without any real purpose. I craved a day for Frank to spend in one place. Find a bite to eat and have an honest conversation. Maybe have a laugh with someone. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I think what I craved was more exposition. But that’s not what Frank craves. His only urge is to keep moving. We are as unsure why as he is and there is something, just beyond the frame of the plot, that makes this novel an unsettling one. There is a measure of decay and loss and death that builds gradually, in layer upon layer, until it is overwhelming and frightening. This is a remarkably subtle novel. You should probably read it.
Gone, Jennifer Mills: Four stars.
Read it when: you feel the urge to wander aimlessly, you wonder what lurks in the darkest parts of your mind.