Saturday, 30 March 2019

Book review: Hare’s Fur, Trevor Shearston (2019)

This simple little novel – it’s almost a novella, it is so diminutive – has the unusual distinction of featuring a protagonist aged in his 70s. Russell is a potter who lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in a cottage he and his wife inhabited until she died from a stroke while out shopping one day. Russell has a close circle of friends in the locality but the couple’s son died as a child, so otherwise he is alone. Then one day when he is down in the valley in the bush collecting iron-laden rocks to use to make a glaze for his bottles and cups he sees a chocolate wrapper on the ground. Then he hears voices and he spies on two children playing in the deserted canyon through which runs a creek.

The next day he goes back down the mountain and leaves a note with his name and phone number written on it, along with some food. He estimated that there were two small children and a young woman, who is possibly their mother, and he had been concerned for their safety. It is autumn and the nights are cold up in the mountains.

Later, he is contacted by Jade, the older sister of Emma and Todd, the two little ones, and he lets the three of them live in his house. Teenage Jade is as flighty as an antelope on the open veld, suspicious of other people and easy to startle. Russell teaches Emma how to play chess and Jade starts making things on Russel’s wheel. Todd is happy with the TV shows he watches.

The title of the novel comes from a particular type of glaze made with iron and it had been used on an old Song dynasty cup Russell owns that had been given to him by an admirer. The object is 900 years old and worth tens of thousands of dollars. So when Jade takes Emma and Todd away from Russell’s place without an explanation one day you worry whether she has also lifted the cup. In the end the signification of the title is emblematic not just of Jade’s volatile nature but of the mixture of good and bad that characterises existence when you stand back and look at it through narrowed lids. The glaze that has this name makes a complex pattern of alternating colours on the objects it is used with, much in the way the fur of a hare might look if you saw it up close.

Like his protagonist Shearston is elderly and this novel has about it an older person’s view of the world. It is full of wisdom and even the odd moment of humour but mainly it is deeply well-intentioned. It reminds me of those stories you see in the media about groups of people in the community (they are always older people, usually retirees) united by membership of a particular church and who join forces to help new migrants, often refugees, by providing them with food, or clothes, or advice. Or all three. Civil society is at work every day although we don’t normally learn about what it does.

Not many people would welcome members of Australia’s underclass into their homes, although Russell never loses focus and remains throughout the work a credible creation. His need for companionship serves as a powerful goad to action just as Jade’s need for food and shelter draws her to his home. In many ways this novel embodies a fairly mechanistic way of understanding the world, but there is something about dour Russell and his addiction to the material – the use of technical language to describe the making of pots and cups might exasperate some readers – that makes the solution he arrives at seem reasonable.

While the denouement is not unduly delayed by an elaborate plot, the final reckoning when it comes has a certain freshness that is in keeping with the novel’s dedication to human decency. If the novel has a weakness it is that Jade’s version of the state government’s approach to housing children without parents to look after them in foster care – that families are split up – is not interrogated by Russell or by Helen, the neighbour who helps Russell from time to time. Jade’s animosity toward the authorities constitutes a bullish plot device that underpins many of the twists and turns that the story takes, and a more nuanced approach to this single idea might not only have resulted in a truer version of reality but also a more complicated and satisfying plot. The way this book ends, with a sudden jolt, suggests that more development of the kind I mention could have improved things.

Stylistically, the novel relies on a concise and unadorned prose that makes you pay attention. If you go too fast or skip a line you will likely lose the plot, so take care with this exacting book.

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