Athenapallas's Blog

January 20, 2011

DISCOVERY : A REVIEW of wrack

 Athena has retreated to her cave at Santorini ( see 2010 August 27 )   and has asked me  to do a guest post .

Recently I was visiting ‘my home away from home’, the serene women’s pool at Coogee. In the change room is a reading corner where swimmers leave books for others to read.

This time I picked up a book entitled wrack and it was this word that grabbed me. Intrigued I read the extracts from the reviews on the back and realised that the author’s name, James Bradley, was familiar but I was sure I had not read any of his work. The reviews used words like ambitious, intelligent, provocative, ingenuous, sensuous, erudite, and the short précis sounded enticing.

However I was at first sceptical, jaundiced from the struggle with my own writing and the glut of both popular and literary books that tumble off the shelves and disappear into oblivion.

With nothing else to read while I lay in the shade between swims I panicked, hoping this book might live up to its marketing hype. It was after all by an Australian writer with a peculiarly Australian story emanating from the controversial maps of the journeys of Portuguese explorers to Australia nearly two hundred years before the discoveries of Cook and Banks.

I couldn’t help wondering about the journey of this book from its no doubt proud display in a major bookshop in 1992 to some second-hand bookshop or exchange where it was sold for $2.95, maybe to the person who had left it here, and now it came free of charge to me, perhaps not the first women’s pool reader.

No wonder writers struggle to make a living just from their writing.

As a writer and would be novelist now happily blogging, writing songs, and little books, I thought of all the energy and emotion I had put into my several unpublished novels, so I approached this novel with both trepidation and humility.

This was James Bradley’s first novel published in 1992 when he was already a published  poet and editor of an anthology of Australian writing, so the inside cover told me.

I had left my iPhone at home but even if I’d had it with me I would not have googled him.

I wanted to see if indeed I had happened upon a treasure and I didn’t want to be influenced by anything else but my own reading here and now in January 2011.

As I turned the first two pages I liked what I saw, a dedication to the memory of his grandfather and an extract from the shorter Oxford dictionary with seven meanings for the word wrack some of which I didn’t know, and in reading those definitions I started to feel a sense of excitement as to what was to follow.

Then I was delighted to find a list of Maps that were included in the book as well as a table of Contents including Acknowledgements which I quickly scanned. So far so good. But it got better.

A Prologue headed by a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was followed by an extract from the journals of a William Townshend the Surgeon aboard His Majesty’s Vessel Berkeley written on the 17th August 1794 telling of the discovery of a shipwreck believed to be of Portuguese or Spanish origin witha  ship design not seen for over 200 years. And amongst the debris a box containing papers with the name De Cueva and the date 1519.

 No comment was made by the author about this extract except to follow it with a page from Mathew Flinder’s Voyage to Terra Australis 1814 alluding to a French chart that showed an extensive country south of the Moluccas called Great Java which agreed with the extent and position of Terra Australis and could have been the result, wrote Flinders, of observations of the Portuguese on their voyages from India before and after 1540.

Then someone asked the question, How to tell this story, where to begin?

When I first read this page and half I was not sure who was asking this question of me, the reader, using both the first person plural we and second person you.  Not knowing was good. Here was the theme and that was also good. 

Perhaps it begins in a storm…..or there are patterns we can detect in the motion of the sand…..symbols which might trace out a story of love and death. About loving and dying…..emotions moving like tides like rivers deep within the sand…feeling stealing across the years like shifting hills slowly inexorably burying all that lies before them……

The poet was speaking here and then suddenly we were into the story with the introduction of one of the main characters, David, the present day Archaeologist who was supervising a dig for what we already knew would be related to that ship and that name and those maps.

 The short first chapter headed Discovery was not just about this, it was the start of a complex, compelling historical murder mystery linked to the present by archaeological secrets, rivalries and obsessions, and including two beautiful, terrifyingly real love stories.

I couldn’t finish this book at the pool, I had to dive in and swim to come up for air so immersed was I in its pages, so I took it home to devour it over the next week. I was fascinated and sometimes annoyed by the structure but full of admiration as to how the writer almost managed to pull it off.

It didn’t matter if I found some of the transitions from present tense to past, or changes in narrator or lack of punctuation or the interjection of succinct essays on the political history of European expansion challenging, since I had experimented with all such devices in my own writing and I knew how well this writer was handling these.

And above all, the story, the characters and the clear but lyrical prose carried me into worlds that I knew and didn’t know, the familiar and the strange interwoven in a book that doesn’t quite fit any genre,  resulting in a reading experience rivalling some of my best.

Original, exciting, seriously scary in parts and oh so erotic with a sometimes perverse edge, are some more epithets I would add.  And hurrah for a man who can write erotic scenes so well!

I googled James to find out more and I remembered why his name was familiar, his blog  had been recommended in Newswrite the journal of the NSW  Writers’ Centre, and  he’d had gone on to win further acclaim with his next two novels. His blog is generously full of ideas, information, provocative essays, comments, videos, cartoons,  and the longest blog roll I’ve ever seen. Well worth a visit particularly his video interview about his book The Resurrectionist.

However there is nothing like the experience of reading a great novel, lying in the sun overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean in this land we now call Australia or the map calls Great Java.

Wrack will stay with me a long time, it is already in my psyche burrowing away and prodding my wretched muse to do its work. I don’t want to part with this book yet but eventually I will take it back to the pool and let someone else have the joy of Discovery of this treasure. And I will buy  a copy of The Resurrectionist.

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