2009, 170 p
I hadn’t heard of this book until I read Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers, but I see that it has attracted quite a bit of attention with shortlistings at both the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize First Book of Fiction and the Age Book of the Year. It’s only short- just the right length really, because she teases her reader and as we know, it’s a narrow line between teasing and tears.
It’s an unusual and risky book. A young girl is rescued by a young man after being swept ashore as the only survivor after a shipwreck in 1887. She is unable to remember her earlier life, and her story becomes part of the local folklore, heavily mined by the press at the time, a series of oral histories in the 1940s and then centenary publications a hundred years later. There’s shades of the Loch Ard here, but not quite; the small seaside town of Colego seems as if must exist somewhere in Western Australia, but it doesn’t seem to, either. The slippage between fact and fiction starts on the flyleaves, where the author thanks “Ken and Claire Stewart” for the extracts from an unpublished manuscript by Caroline Stewart held at Colego Public Library. It is this manuscript that forms one strand of the narrative: the other strand is the drugged delirium of a woman on what appears to be a ship. Woven around these two main strands is an assortment of tangentially-related ‘evidence’- press clippings and letters from 1887, extracts of books, interviews with Colego inhabitants in 1946, a collection of letters by Isobel Smith, a book by the same Isobel Smith, then an edited anniversary edition of the same work.
There’s much here about memory and history, as layer upon layer is built up over the story. Caroline Stewart, the author of the manuscript, works in the small Colego museum where she works cataloguing the objects, and although her instructions are to label the materials empirically, the edifice of objectivity is just as tottery for the ‘fact-based’ local museum as it is for the other retellings. The curator of the museum is fiercely protective of the artefacts and the version of local history that the museum promulgates but there’s a flatness and deadness about the history it embalms, especially compared with the other stories we are given based on people rather than things.
A risky book? Sure is. She has assembled it all carefully, but it is the reader who puts it together. I’m not sure if I understood it, and that’s an uncomfortable reading experience. At 170 pages it is short and as the number of pages diminished, I found myself wondering how she was going to draw it to a close, and even why it ended at that particular point. It is beautifully written, and she deftly catches the tone and cadence of many different genres in the material that she lays out for us. And yes, I know the adage about judging books and covers, but that is a truly lovely photograph on the front.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago a book called Pistols! Treason! Murder! which, labelled “History” on the back cover, uses a similar methodology. I’ve borrowed it and I’m interested to see the technique used in non-fiction. I wonder if I’ll experience the same sense of floating anxiety (yes- that front cover is well chosen) about whether I’m putting it together “properly”.