Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
Cover design: Christa Moffitt
Map: Mika Tabata
This book is a masterpiece of atmospheric evocation, a family tale exploring the need to acknowledge our pasts in order to be whole.
Greta and Joel, our central characters are complex individuals, a couple joined it seems by their need to constantly move on and a capacity to allow the other not to speak of things – until they return to Joel’s family home in the Northern Territory to renovate the property for a tourism project. It is then that the past itself takes on a character role and insists on disclosure. The revelation of Joel’s secrets ultimately leads to Greta’s unveiling as well.
There is so much in this book that it is difficult to capture it here in a few words – the powerful depiction of landscape and the forces of nature, the swirling atmosphere of concealment and secrets, the tussle between love and abuse, the glue of family love. And then there is the beautiful and complex weaving of themes and motifs, the gradual solidifying of image from vestiges told in the metaphor of darkroom photography.
The darknesses of Joel’s past are the foundation for much of this story – his parents come from war torn Europe and bring their traumas with them. There is the struggle to tame the country, to mould it to a white European mindset.
There is jealousy, alcohol fuelled conflict and physical abuse, the persistent love of a mother. Within this we see the camaraderie of brothers, the stalwart silences and loyalties, the need for secrets and finally the surfacing of a guilt that can no longer stay submerged.
The strange and fascinating poison lake is a dominant feature of the landscape and a dominant metaphor for all that is wrong – and there is always a sense for the reader and for Greta through whose eyes we see all of this of something wrong that we cannot yet know but want so much to understand. The lake looks crystal clear; you can see right to the bed, but it is fatally toxic, polluted by a mysterious man-made runoff.
But it is the children, the three boys, Griffin, Raffy and Toby, who are the hope we need. Their combined and individual natures and their relationship with their parents and other adults around them afford a lightness, a youthful clarity unburdened by the heaviness of the past. They provide us with another way of seeing the world whether that be the custodianship of the land or the perceptive understanding of their parents’ moods. Here we find uncompromising and uncompromised love.
Karen Manton writes beautifully. Her language is rich, her observation of the Northern Territory landscape and society acute, sympathetic and sensitive. Her dialogues are totally believable and her characters immediately seductive, whether it be as repellent cruel misanthropes or delicately beguiling children, quietly phlegmatic Territorians or sympathetic lead characters. The stories of these book people immediately matter to us.
This is a fine piece of literary fiction – let us not let it be diminished by categorising it as Australian bush noir. The book stays with me long after I turned the final page. I look forward to more from Karen Manton.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy, DMCPR for facilitating the interview and Karen for spending time with me to talk about your work.