From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

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SS Admella was an Australian passenger steamship  shipwrecked on a submerged reef off the coast of Carpenter Rocks, south west of Mount Gambier South Australia, in the early hours of Saturday 6 August 1859. Survivors clung to the wreck for over a week and many people took days to die as they glimpsed the land from the sea and watched as one rescue attempt after another failed. With the loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure… the Admella disaster remains the greatest loss of life in the history of European settlement in South Australia. Of the 113 on board 24 survived, including only one woman, Bridget Ledwith. Wikipedia (here)

Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but there was another survivor, an interstellar, shape-shifting alien, and Jane Rawson’s latest fantastic novel, From the Wreck (2017) is its story.

I’ve found it always difficult to review Rawson, her stories have surprises on every page, and to reveal even one is to lessen the impact. So what can I say? The action revolves around a steward on the Admella, George Hills. George is saving to marry his sweetheart, Eliza, though he wouldn’t mind some fun in the meanwhile and Bridget Ledwith, who may or may not be the woman he saw talking to the racehorses in the ship’s hold, has a nice arse.

He gets his wish, although not quite in the way he might have hoped, spends eight days locked in the arms of the woman who may have been Ledwith after the ship breaks up on the reef and the survivors huddle on deck awaiting rescue. In my recent review of Tasma’s A Sydney Sovereign I quote Tasma’s use of the word ‘anthropophagi’, it’s a word that might usefully be reprised here.

George, and of course Ledwith, are among the 24. She disappears, he is persuaded to marry Eliza. They settle in Port Adelaide, in a home for seamen, and go on to have three children, boys Henry, Georgie and Wills. The shape-shifting alien has its own point of view about what may or may not have happened over the course of the wreck and subsequently, in its own way, and only on the edge of George’s awareness, it too takes its place in George’s household.

George senses the alien’s influence, both during the shipwreck and in his new home, as a malevolent presence associated with or arising from Bridget Ledwith; advertises for Bridget Ledwith to reveal herself, but only false Bridgets reply. In the stables behind the home for seamen lives an old woman, of course a witch, with the care of her teenage daughter’s abandoned son; George applies to her to lift the curse; she cannot. Henry knows the alien best, but he is just a boy growing up, and he keeps what he knows to himself. This is the alien’s story:

On a planet, all ocean, there was a small, happy person living small and happy and quiet in her own small niche, her own small place, her own quiet space. Born, grew, lived, loved, ate. The sun, that star, shining on her one happy face.

One day they came out of the sky and her world filled up with dirt and everyone she knew died. She fought and killed and everyone else she didn’t know died and everyone who was left fled. She, they, all of them tumbled into another time, space, dimension and she fell into a new ocean in a place called earth.

Henry reveals a little of what he has learned to Mrs Gallwey, the witch-woman, and maybe back in Sydney she knew a sailor from California who had experienced some of what Henry is experiencing. The alien, lonely with just the company of a school-age boy, is excited and forms the intention of making her way to California, with or without Henry. Without, as it turns out, but her quest is interrupted mid voyage and she spends some time at the bottom of the ocean, comfortable and well-fed, but lonely, and must perforce make her way back to Port Adelaide, to Henry just getting used to being ordinary, and to George, who for a while, felt as though a spell had been lifted.

There’s a tragedy. The shape-shifting alien is not to blame, nor Henry for that matter. George drinks a lot. Bridget Ledwith makes an appearance. Much is resolved. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, as fantastical as, but less gritty than Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists; nineteenth century Port Adelaide, and George and Eva’s extended family play a much bigger part than I have given any idea of here. I advise you all to buy it, and hope Jane is already working on her next. She is a remarkable talent.

 

Jane Rawson, From the Wreck, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2017


The official launch is on 21 March 2017 at 7.00pm at the Sun bookshop in Yarraville (more here)

I think Jane has already nominated the perfect review, Linda Godfrey at Newtown Review of Books. I’m not game to read it, for fear of discovering my mistakes, but you may. It, and a couple of others including Lisa at ANZLL’s, are linked to Jane’s post Welcome to the World, From the Wreck.

My reviews of Jane Rawson’s previous works (of fiction) –
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) here
Formaldehyde (2015) here

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Formaldehyde, Jane Rawson

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Jane Rawson did an interview with Booktopia which she put up on her blog late last year. If you haven’t seen it check it out, but here are a couple of extracts:

  1. Please tell us about your latest novel…

It’s just a little chap, a novella, called Formaldehyde. I had my first go at writing it when I was that pretend 30-year-old version of myself, who could do things like stay out til 2 in the morning and wear very high heels and play guitar in a band and also write the extremely rough first draft of a novella, it turned out…

There are jokes and quite a few revelations. People tend to call it ‘Kafkaesque’.

  1. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

If the world feels a little more intriguing and odd to them, if they’re a bit more inclined to speculate and make wild suppositions, then I think I’m happy.

Jane repeatedly refers to this book as “little” so I multiplied out the words and the pages and came up with 40,000 – equivalent to 2 dissertations, so not insignificant, or maybe half a ‘real’ novel, but only $14.99, so half price as well! And definitely a full novel’s worth of entertainment.

The first thing to say about Formaldehyde is be very careful to read the chapter headings, which I don’t normally, or you will soon be hopelessly lost. The first chapter – “2022: PAUL” – commences:

Not knowing that I was dead, I went about my business that day like I did on every other.

And that sets the tone. Paul finds being dead a problem, not least for his fellow office workers, who ask him to leave. Later in the novel he phones one:

‘Hey Louise. It’s Paul Crawford here. How’re you going? Things still rolling along alright without me?’

‘Sorry, who did you say it was?’

‘It’s Paul, Louise. Remember. I worked there two weeks ago.’

‘Oh, Paul, hi, how are you? How are you feeling? Are you OK?’

‘Apparently I’m dead.’

‘I know, they told us. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Paul.’

‘Oh, it’s OK. It’s not as bad as I expected it to be.’

‘Sorry, Paul. It’s kind of a bad time. I was just on my way to weekly staff meeting. But you’d remember that.’

‘Of course. You run along. And say hi to the others for me.’

‘Paul, you’re dead. People don’t like hearing hi from dead people. It makes them uncomfortable.’

The book proceeds via a series of vignettes which we slowly reconcile.

Derek, a nurse, is in a streetcar accident and comes to, nursing a young woman in a bunny costume, whose arm has been severed. The young woman is taken to Derek’s hospital where he is able to visit, and fall in love with, her.

Amy is in love with a Taylor Swift-ish singer, but is one of those tragic lovers who pushes the love-object away. To express her unhappiness she lies in the bath and cuts off her arm.

Everyone is reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

Benjamin wakes up in hospital, missing her bunny suit, but with a new, not very functional arm.

Paul discovers that as a dead person not only is he unable to obtain unemployment benefits, but he can no longer access his flat. He meets a girl called Benjamin who takes him home. For hot sex, if only he could stay awake.

Amy is pregnant, but the only person she has slept with is her (female) singer/lover. She returns briefly to Derek, whose wife she is, and when she has had the baby, leaves again.

And so the interactions between the characters go round and round. But why should I spoil it for you by spelling it out any further. One clue though, Paul is real, he’s not a ghost. And it does all make sense in the end. Sort of. So do yourself a favour, for less than it costs to shout a mate a pint of beer, curl up in bed for a couple of hours and read it for yourself.

 

Jane Rawson, Formaldehyde. Xoum Publishing, Sydney, 2015

Other reviews here

My review of Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists here

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.

Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.

And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.

Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.

Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.

Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.

Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.

And so, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the axioms, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.

One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.

 

Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013

Refer also to previous reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).

Jane Rawson’s own blog is here.