Monday, 18 October 2010

Review: The World Beneath, Cate Kennedy (2009)

Sandy's peace is shattered when she learns that Sophie, her 15-year-old daughter, wants to go on a walking tour of Tasmania's wilderness with her estranged father. Sophie is adamant. The first time Sandy has seen Rich in years takes place at Melbourne airport and she leaves him in no doubt about how she feels about this development. Rich and Sophie trot off to catch the plane and Sandy trips away to refresh herself at a new-age retreat and to forget about how much she hates Rich. The walk the two adventurers take over the bare heath goes well until, when they are almost finished, Rich decides he wants some better photos to take back with him to civilisation, photos with no people in them. Despite the swollen blister on his heel, he encourages Sophie to venture into the wild. Then they get lost, fog comes in, and they miss the ferry to the flight back home. Sandy is left waiting fruitlessly at the airport and, back home, she calls the police. The wait is on.

There's a scene near this point where Sandy contemplates a worn step. It is so well-used there is a concavity in it, the result of years and years of people stepping on it, so that it has become curved out of shape. It's a scene that captured, in concrete form, the sense of frustration I felt during the wait the reader is made to experience as Sophie and Rich sit in their thin tent, shoulder to shoulder with each other and just beyond the reach of the cold wind rushing past outside. There's no relief from the other's obsessions. For the reader, there's no relief from the author's.

Annoyed, I flipped through the pages until I got to the end.

Kennedy wore my patience thin in an attempt to maintain the suspense she had tried to build over recent pages. A number of things could have happened at this point in the novel, of course. The options are clumsily employed to focus our attention on the dilemma the father and daughter face. Rich and Sophie could die of exposure. Sandy could take Rich to court for kidnap. Rich could die and Sophie could survive. Sophie could destroy the photos of the Thylacine Rich thinks he has caught on his camera. Instead, nothing happens except that we are regaled - again and again - with evidence of the smoldering animosity that so effectively animated the novel in its earlier parts. Rich and Sandy cannot stand each other. Sophie is irritated by her mother's ineffectualness. Sandy's mother Janet is a carping petty tyrant with no imagination or empathy for her daughter's feelings. Rich's father is a cold Australian father-figure with all of the failings attached to that stereotype.

There are a hundred points of conflict in the novel and Kennedy makes good use of them when she is able to work directly on interpersonal relationships. But when it comes to a point where these grating clashes must lose their force in the face of a larger threat - there is a real risk the two will not emerge from their ordeal unscathed - Kennedy is unable to find a focal point upon which to turn the narrative so that it moves in synch with the subject matter. She relies on interpersonal conflict for the forward thrust of the story, and it dies when the wars stop. In the absence of interpersonal conflict, Kennedy flounders and the novel flags. Highly descriptive passages at this point that might otherwise serve to inject some poetry into the scenario merely serve to annoy the reader.

Kennedy might have thought more deeply about some other elements of the novel, too. Sandy, for example, is just a little too ditzy. Her drop-out-get-stoned it's-all-too-hard-don't-bother-me attitude is frankly tiresome and you begin to sympathise with Rich for dipping out of the relationship when he did. Sure, Janet is a grade-A pain in the arse, but surely Sandy can work out that her daughter is anorexic. Rich comes out of the novel a tad more successfully but, here again, it was possible to make him slightly less vain and self-obsessed. Surely a father on the first trip he's ever had with his daughter would be less concerned about how she thought of his stamina and more interested in her as a person. There are minimum levels of politness, I venture.

Sophie is the point of interest, of course. Young women so often are in literature. She emerges from the drama with renewed resolve and some idea of what she wants to do with her life, at least for the forseeable future. This is good. But her neurotic doubts about Rich when they are stranded in the Labyrinth struck me as too immature for a girl who showed the moral fibre she did.

In the final analysis, the book does not sustain itself, failing near the end at the point of greatest interest. The depictions it contains of relations between individuals are worthy of the author's earlier short stories. The novel never attains the level of sophistication and authorial judgement that they do, however.

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