A Lad of the Limberlost Escapes the Rising Seas

I review a wonderful new novel by Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott, as well as a prescient and elegiac novel about climate change.

Issue #32, Sunday 16 October 2022


Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

New-ish books I would be interested to read.

Tiny Uncertain Miracles by Michelle Johnston

Out 3 November 2022.

Awkward, hapless Marick is still struggling with the loss of his wife, his child and his faith when he is reluctantly thrust into the position of chaplain at a large public hospital. Shortly after arriving, he meets Hugo, a hospital scientist and a man almost as lost as Marick himself, who is working in a forgotten lab, deep in the subterranean realms of the hospital. Hugo is convinced that the bacteria he uses for protein production have - unbelievably - begun to produce gold. Is it alchemy, evolution, a hoax or even … possibly … a miracle?

This sounds very wacky but interesting. And it’s set in Melbourne, so seems like it would be worth a try. I really dislike the hard-to-read cover, though.

Buy it at Readings.

Her debut book Dustfall sounds much less wacky, but worthwhile, about a doctor who moves to Wittenoom in WA and uncovers the story about asbestos.

Buy it at Readings.

Psalms For The End Of The World by Cole Haddon

Released 30 August 2022.

It's 1962 and physics student Grace Pulansky believes she has met the man of her dreams, Robert Jones... But then the FBI shows up… and accuses him of being a bomb-planting mass-murderer. Finding herself on the run with Jones across America's Southwest, the discoveries awaiting Gracie will undermine everything she knows about the universe. Her story will reveal how scores of lives … are interconnected across space and time by love, grief, and quantum entanglement.

This sounds intriguing, and my kind of book. The author is an Australian who seems to have written the scripts of quite a few movies. I’m hoping to get hold of a review copy of this.

Buy it at Readings.

Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild, Philip Reeve

Released 1 September 2022.

Accompanying her uncle as he explores mysterious Summertide, Utterly is witness to strange happenings in the woods. Deep, old magic abounds, and threatens to steal those she loves most. Utterly must face truths about what lies beneath the land, and in her own past, if she is to save anyone. And she must make a sacrifice to the sea …

I really liked the first book in this series, Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep, so I’m looking forward to getting hold of this one. I must have missed the announcement of its release.

Buy it at Readings.

Other News

The Booker Prizes

Winners will be announced the day after this newsletter comes out. But I still haven’t read any of the books on the long-list.

Details of this year’s winner ceremony on Monday October 17 have been revealed. The vibrant, new-look event will take place at the Roundhouse, London, attended by Her Majesty The Queen Consort and singer-songwriter Dua Lipa.

More details


My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

It’s very rare that I read two books in a row to which I give 5-star ratings on Goodreads, but that was the case for these books.

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

[Many thanks to Text Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

This is a beautifully-written and moving novel, and certainly one of the best books I’ve read all year.

That it is beautifully-written will be no surprise to those who have read Arnott’s first two books, Flames and The Rain Heron. What may surprise readers of those books is that this third novel Limberlost has none of the touches of the fantastic which distinguished his earlier works to great effect. No, Limberlost is a work of pure realism but loses absolutely nothing because of that.

Robbie Arnott is an Australian author, but more than that, he is a very distinctively Tasmanian author. All three of his novels so far are set in Tasmania (well, in the case of The Rain Heron it’s not named as such, but the setting described is clearly a near-future Tasmania). Arnott’s deep love of Tasmania, its history, its landscape, its wildlife and vegetation, its mountains, forests and rivers have never been so obvious as in Limberlost.

So what is the book about? One could start by calling Limberlost a “coming-of-age” story, and it’s certainly that, but it’s a coming-of-age story which lasts a lifetime. It’s about how deeply-felt experiences, both positive and negative, can resonate through someone’s entire life and shape every moment. Traumatic experiences can do that, of course, but the key experiences which shape young Ned in Limberlost are not in themselves traumatic as such but nevertheless are profoundly important to him, a boy learning to be a man.

Ned West is the youngest child of an apple farmer in northern Tasmania, whose orchard is called Limberlost1. Though the novel ranges back and forth over Ned’s entire life, the core of the story covers what happens to Ned during a long summer during the last year of the Second World War, when Ned is in his mid-teens. His two elder brothers have been fighting in different theatres of the war; the oldest, Bill, was in Singapore when it was captured by the Japanese, and nothing has been heard of him since: the family fear that he’s dead. The second-eldest, Toby, is in Malaysia and they get occasional letters from him. Ned’s eldest sibling, his sister Maggie, has returned home to help their father. His mother died when he was very young.

Young Ned has therefore grown up without the love of a mother, and with his father and two older brothers, whom he idolises, as role models, he is constantly filled with feelings of inadequacy and guilt. His brothers are off being heroes, and his father, who was in the trenches in the First World War, is a hard, remote man who Ned struggles to please.

At the very start of the book, there’s a brief passage describing an event when Ned was only five years old. There’s been a lot of fearful talk about a mad whale at the mouth of the river, smashing fishing boats and creating havoc. Ned’s father, scoffing at these fishermen’s tales, takes his sons out in a small boat to show them there is nothing to fear. We don’t find out the resolution of this incident until much later in the book, but it has a strong influence on Ned, who as the story proper opens is out trying to shoot and trap rabbits. He wants to earn enough by selling skins to buy a boat of his own. The rabbit pelts are in demand by the Army to make slouch hats.

When he proudly shows his father the pelt of a rabbit he’s trapped, and how neatly he’s skinned it, his father misunderstands:

Now [Ned] saw it: how his father’s oldest boys had been pulled to a distant leviathan of a war, beyond scope or comprehension… And all the while his youngest remained at home, spending his free months selflessly avoiding leisure in order to provide rabbit pelts to the army for the production of slouch hats. Ned saw how it looked, how he had misrepresented his intentions. How he’d drawn a nobler image of himself in his father’s eyes than could ever be true.

Ned tries to convince himself that his father’s view of him is true, but as he hones his shooting and trapping skills, realises that he can both save for his boat and supply the Army’s needs. He sells the pelts for a good price and tells his father:

The old man drew on a faint, tired smile. “Well, you’re either a hard lad or a thick one. Although you don’t seem thick to me.”

Ned was strangled hot and mute by the compliment. In this moment life was not brimming with conflict, his skills not linked to guilt or shame.

Such back-handed compliments are the best he can hope for from his father, and his brothers are absent, Bill perhaps dead. His sister Maggie he barely knows, and her approval is rare and criticism frequent, though he longs to please her and to at least partially fill the place of her absent brothers. But when he fails to recognise that one of the farm’s horses has gone lame and do anything about it, her fury lasts for days.

Two main events during this summer shape the rest of Ned’s long life. Firstly, Ned eventually gets his boat, a second-hand purchase which turns out to be an unexpected treasure. He’s dreamed for years of his brothers returning from the war and being able to show them his boat, of the skills he’s acquired in being able to navigate it effortlessly on the river. This, however, is destined never to occur, and through his selfless actions to help his father’s struggling business, instead Ned is led to a point of abiding grief.

The second major event is that in trying to trap whatever creature is trying to dig under the fence to get to Maggie’s chickens, instead of the suspected fox or Tasmanian devil he finds that he’s trapped a native quoll, (a carnivorous marsupial about the size of a large cat, with a white-spotted pelt). Its leg is broken and fastened in the trap, but as Ned moves to kill it, he can’t bring himself to do it. Secretly he keeps the quoll in a crate and feeds it scraps of rabbit meat. This goes on for many months. But Ned is very bad at keeping secrets. Many times in his story he lets into the open things he wanted to keep secret, to keep personal, to himself. Eventually the secret of the hidden quoll comes out.

The quoll followed him for years, its jaw gaping through his mind whenever he found terror and fury in the same place.

This is all in the core story of that key summer during the war, but the story roams back and forth over Ned’s life: a decade later when he’s working for a logging company felling the “White Knights—the name they’d given to the pale, towering mannas”; to his time mustering on a sheep station on the mainland; to his marriage and the birth of his children; to when he’s running the orchard himself and is chosen by the local growers association to represent them overseas; to when his daughters are grown and at university; to his old age. This interleaving is done smoothly and without the slightest confusion to the reader. And at each point, we see how the events of the key summer have affected Ned’s thinking and actions.

The conclusion of that summer—and of the book—is a deeply moving incident. Not many books bring me to tears, but this one came very close to doing so.

I loved this book. I fully expect to see it on the short list for next year’s Miles Franklin Award and unless it has some very good competition, would think it has a good chance of winning. (But what do I know?)

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

This is a very sad, elegiac novel about the forthcoming climate disaster we are slipping into. And that sad, seemingly inevitable slipping is part of the whole point of this book. A slow-motion catastrophe is happening before our eyes because most of us humans can’t quite imagine our comfortable lives really being under threat. Here for example is an early passage in the book, as one of the characters talks about how we react about climate disasters in other places:

We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that the situation was bad, elsewhere, but surely things would work out, because didn’t they always, for us? We were paralysed, unable to plan either for a future in which all was well, or one in which it wasn’t.

This is heartbreaking because it’s so true.

The book could be categorised simply as post-apocalyptic fiction, but unlike many such books, the apocalypse here is not a sudden, dramatic one, just a slow, steady decline into catastrophe, an all-too-likely scenario. It’s about change and how we struggle to deal with it: change both slow and rapid, all too often very slow at first and then very rapid.

Published in late 2021, The High House is certainly up to date and prescient: one key event is the destruction of much of Florida by a powerful hurricane. Sound familiar?

The quality of Greengrass’ writing is outstanding. I’m going to end up quoting a number of passages from the book in this review because it’s such strikingly good prose.

The High House is narrated by three point-of-view characters: Caro and Sally, who are in their late teens as the story begins, and Pauly, a boy who is only a toddler at that point.

Caro (short for Caroline) is the daughter of a climate scientist. He and Caro’s step-mother Francesca spend much of their time attending conferences and agitating for action about climate change. Francesca in particular is passionate and furious about the lack of action against the disaster she sees looming. Despite her fears for the future, she becomes pregnant. Others in the environmental movement criticise her harshly for this: “They think this baby is an admission of defeat”. But Caro says:

… but watching her I thought that it was not defeat at all. Rather, it was a kind of furious defiance that had led her to have a child, despite all she believed about the future—a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love.

The birth is very difficult and the baby struggles for life during its early weeks. But once it’s clear that Paul (or Pauly) will survive, Francesca makes plans for him. Over years she essentially builds an ark—not a ship, but a house. The High House.

The High House is an old house which Francesca has bought, set on a rise in a rural area near the coast of England. She spends a great deal of money and time, much of it kept secret from young Caro, to renovate the house and its surrounds to make it as resilient and self-contained as she can.

After Francesca and Caro’s father are killed in Florida by a massive hurricane, Caro follows the instructions she has been given, leaves their apartment in London and takes Pauly to the High House. Things have already started to fall apart in England, making this a difficult and exhausting journey. At the end of it she has to abandon their bags and carry Pauly for miles on her back.

When Caro arrives at the High House, expecting it to be empty, she is disconcerted to find Sally and Sally’s grandfather (“Grandy”) already living there. They are there at Francesca’s request. As Sally comments when she sees Caro’s resentment of this:

Francesca … needed me, too, and Grandy. What would Caro have done, in the high house, by herself? How would she have dug the garden, lived, looked after Pauly? It is not enough to have an ark, if you do not also have the skills to sail it.

Despite its important underlying environmental theme, the core of the book is about character: the interpersonal relationships between Caro and Sally and their mutual love of young Pauly, for whose affections they for a while jealously contend. Often we see a scene through Caro’s eyes immediately followed by Sally’s view of the same event, and vice-versa. Then we might get young Pauly’s take. Each of these characters has considerable depth and interest.

Meanwhile, in the outer world, things are steadily getting worse. The sea is rising and storms bring flooding rains. Summer lasts now for nine months of the year. Winters are still cold, but rain much more frequent. Coastal cities are becoming uninhabitable and many people have become reluctant climate refugees. The High House is well away from regular roads and pathways, however, and can’t be seen from the road, otherwise Caro and Sally might find themselves having to make hard decisions about how many people their small plot can possibly support. Francesca has chosen its location well.

One day, Grandy tells the others about a historical event. A century ago, the river mouth and the fishing port was a few miles away down the coast. A long spit of sand and shingle created a natural harbour at the river mouth. The town grew and developed based on this shelter. But then came a terrible storm. The spit was washed away and the whole course of the river altered.

The river was gone. The fishing fleet was sunk or wrecked. Ships due to land had to be diverted elsewhere, and merchants found themselves with goods they couldn’t reach, or couldn’t store, or had no way of moving. In the course of one bad night the whole system, which the day before had seemed inviolable, was brought to collapse.

The metaphor of the current fragility of our economic systems couldn’t be clearer.

Life at the High House also becomes increasingly fragile, as the stores Francesca had gathered are slowly depleted as the years pass. Grandy, already an old man as the story opens, grows feeble and can’t help the young women as they struggle to grow crops for themselves. There is no possible medical help, so they have to be doubly careful not to injure themselves, or let Pauly come to harm.

This truth has been laid bare for us, now. We see it every time we fall—every time a knife slips, or a splinter finds its way beneath the skin—that we will either get better, or we won’t. We need only let the time pass to see if, this time, we will heal.

There are still people eking out a living in the rest of England, but it’s a hard endless struggle against cold and hunger. Caro, Sally and Pauly had been given a head start by the foresight of Francesca, but perhaps it only means they will take longer to die. Sally looks back, towards the end of the book:

Somehow, while we had all been busy, while we had been doing those small things which added up to living, the future had slipped into the present—and, despite the fact that we had known that it would come, the overwhelming feeling, now that it was here, was of surprise, like waking up one morning to find that you had been young, and now, all at once, you weren’t.

I thought this was a very impressive and moving book, sounding a grim warning and which doesn’t give any easy answers. The quality of the author’s prose, as I’ve said, is outstanding. Well worth reading.

Day’s End by Garry Disher

Text Publishing kindly sent me an ARC of this. Only just finished reading it. No time or space to review it in this issue, will have to wait for the next one. It is very good though, a worthy addition to this series about a policeman in rural South Australia.

Currently Reading

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This is the 30th anniversary edition of this classic, a beautiful hardcover which arrived about a week ago. I’d made a start on it with a library copy, but ran out of time to finish it. I’m starting again from the beginning, looking forward to reading it all.

The Pitmen’s Requiem by Peter Crookson

I’m about half-way through this non-fiction book, an account of the life of coal miners in County Durham, England, up to and during the brutal closures of mines under the Thatcher Government. I have a deep personal interest here: my grandfather and all my uncles were Durham coal miners; my father went down the mine at the age of 14 and among other jobs had to look after the poor pit ponies which dragged carts laden with coal through the tunnels.

Waiting on the Shelf


And that’s your lot. See you next time.


Footnotes
1

The orchard is named for a 1909 American novel A Girl of the Limberlost, which was Ned’s mother’s favourite book. Perhaps significantly, that book also tells the story of a child fighting to gain their parent’s approval and love.

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