Thursday, January 14, 2010

the last book I read

The Conversations At Curlow Creek by David Malouf.

We're back in Australia, this time in the 1820s (so about 10-15 years before the events portrayed in A Fringe Of Leaves. Wikipedia reckons it's 1827, but I don't recall an actual date being mentioned in the book). A small group of men huddle round a campfire near a small hut in the bush. Inside the hut are Daniel Carney, an escaped convict and bushranger, and Michael Adair, the military officer charged with overseeing his execution, scheduled for dawn the following day. While the other men sleep, Adair and Carney talk, partly to while away the hours until dawn, and partly because Adair wants to extract as much information as possible about the criminal gang of which Carney was a part (and the other members of which are presumed to have been killed) before he is silenced permanently.

At various intervals the two men either doze or retreat into their own thoughts - we never find out very much about Carney, but we are privy to Adair's reminiscences about his childhood and upbringing in Ireland. Orphaned at an early age when his parents went down with a boat sailing from Holyhead (to, presumably, Dublin), he was put into the care of his mother's eccentric friend Mama Aimée in her sprawling country residence, soon striking up a friendship with local girl Virgilia and Mama Aimée's own son Fergus. Fergus is a great strapping lad, six-foot-six and the apple of everyone's eye, and what soon develops is a three-way relationship similar to the one described in The Leaves On Grey (and, as I said back then, numerous other novels including Le Grand Meaulnes and The Great Gatsby), except without any overtly sexual element. Virgilia and Fergus are the golden couple (she adores him, to which he seems blissfully oblivious) and Adair the wistful observer, hopelessly in love with Virgilia but forced into the role of trusted friend and confidant. Always conscious of the precariousness of his position as foster-child (compared with, say, Fergus, who stands to inherit the estate) he eventually decides to head off and become a soldier.

Adair's specific interest in the gang of outlaws of which Carney was a member isn't clear at first, beyond a general wish to enforce the law by tracking them down, but it eventually becomes clear. Fergus has disappeared, and after some frantic letters sent to him by Virgilia while he was stationed in Spain, Adair is trying to track him down, and has a particular interest in the semi-legendary figure of Dolan, the leader of Carney's gang. A great strapping giant of a man, apparently, six-foot-six in his socks, and, well, you get the general idea.

Eventually time passes, dawn arrives and the two men emerge from the hut to do what must be done. Adair allows Carney down to the river for a final wash, as the other men look on from the shore.

And that's it. There's no climactic execution scene, indeed the epilogue which follows is highly ambiguous as to whether Adair followed through with the sentence or contrived to allow Carney's escape in some way. Just like A Fringe Of Leaves, the novel ends with the departure of a ship taking the central character back to their home country, in Adair's case with a new-found resolution to make his feelings known to Virgilia (whether by proposing to her or slapping her about a bit and bending her over the dining-room table we are left to decide for ourselves).

The ambiguity of the ending will probably frustrate those who like clear resolution of loose ends before a book finishes, but I enjoyed it, tidy resolution of plot points not really being the point. It's very good on the central paradox of trying to enforce the law, including things like property and land rights, in a territory you've obtained by ignoring just those notions as they relate to the original inhabitants of the land, and also on the desire for adventure and excitement that drives people to engage in frontier-expanding activities, and the fine line between how Adair and Fergus have harnessed their respective desires, one legitimately, the other not. This light/dark contrast crops up elsewhere as well, notably Lolita and Riven Rock.

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