Characters look for reassurance: Glenda Guest, Robert Lukins
by Ronnie Scott.
Early in Glenda Guest’s A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline, a Brecht quote floats through the mind of her well-read protagonist: ‘‘People remain what they are even if their faces fall apart.’’ Reassurance of her substance, of who she is, would be welcome for Cassandra Aberline, a former actress and now a lecturer in Sydney, when we meet her at the start of this novel, Guest’s second after the prize-winning Siddon Rock (2010).
Such reassurance would also be welcome for 17-year-old Radford, the hero ofRobert Lukins’s debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday.
Each of these novels dips into different parts of the 20th century. The protagonists have good reasons to query their foundations, and hang on to them as best they can.
Cassandra in particular is pulled between these impulses: she’s a habitual questioner, but also a self-made woman and therefore a person for whom a strong sense of self is not so much a preference as a requirement.
Guest zeroes in on her character piece by piece. A doctor on Macquarie Street diagnoses Cassandra with Alzheimer’s, leaving her to shake his hand, thank him politely for the life sentence and wonder how, when and to what extent dementia will come.
She wonders: ‘‘will this monstrous thing happening to her … change her into something, someone, else?’’ At the young end of old, ‘‘a smidgin under six feet tall and with startling white hair’’, she decides to take a train west from Sydney across the ‘‘vast inland’’ to ‘‘give her time to think about it all’’. The journey — the week — is the action.
At the outset, we know only that Cassandra came to Sydney 45 years ago across the Nullarbor. She was wearing a jumper she couldn’t take off because it concealed a package tied around her waist. She hasn’t been back to Western Australia since. Guest grew up in the WA wheatbelt.
We do learn why Cassandra made that journey, but we take the long way there. This is a contemplative novel, loose, relaxed and spacious. This contrasts nicely with the clarity of Cassandra’s moment-to-moment mind, and also means we can lope backwards into the past and into long stretches of narrative.
The way we move in and out of experience feels close to life, punctuated with flashes of mystery and significance, but it’s all contextual and, for her current self, only as important as the conversation she’s having in the dining car.
The years we spend the longest in are Cassandra’s early ones living above a tattoo parlour in Kings Cross, ‘‘sad, mad, fragile days’’ in a big, sweaty city in which she learns, through example, what it takes to survive. This and other byways have little bearing on the plot, but they shine through the author’s choice of detail.
Here’s an image that gives a sense of changing Surry Hills, gentrifying but still keeping the texture of its past: Cassandra notices a showroom with ‘‘faded rolls of fabric stacked in the window and dead flies lining the internal sills’’. We’ve all seen those faded rolls and dead flies on the sill; it’s an accumulation of specifics.
As for the plot — the ‘‘unachieved life’’ that’s fixed to Cassandra’s heels and is waiting to be dealt with at the end of the train line — it kicks into gear about halfway through the novel, which now gives us the linear version of her teenage story, an ‘‘uncomplicated life in the clear inland sun’’ that complicates in natural but dramatic fashion. There are new people in this section, and the reader has to work to connect them all, thematically, with everything else in the novel. Two halves, linked by Cassandra but in many ways quite different: they mingle into interesting and unexpected flavours.
Lukins is a Melbourne-based writer. The Everlasting Sunday, however, is set in England in 1962, at an experimental home for disturbed boys. Just as Guest metes out information about Cassandra Aberline’s past, here we don’t know what Lukins’s protagonist Radford has done to merit being deposited in the Manor.
We know that for Radford and the other teens in the home, it was ‘‘by a long shot the best option they would be offered. The alternative was a more difficult place’’. The warden insists on being called not ‘‘sir’’ but ‘‘Teddy’’.
Some characters, outside observers, think it’s a place destined for failure, the boys inside ‘‘untamed animals’’. Perhaps, as Teddy speculates late in the book, it’s just a ‘‘brief truce’’ between the boys and the world.
Radford comes to realise there are ‘‘no rules, only customs’’, and that ‘‘a conscious vagueness’’ inhabits the Manor, as do ‘‘equivalents to teachers’’. When violence happens, it’s either for petty reasons (for attention) or almost balletic, causing a ‘‘stripe of red’’ to spread down a boy’s nice shirt.
While Guest follows her character’s thoughts between the past and the present, Lukins is closely fixed on Radford in a terrible winter called the Big Freeze that starts out a ‘‘cold snap’’ and turns into a ‘‘national wreck’’. It defines the boys’ movements and the novel’s tone, which is often quiet, but bursts out vividly when focused on the weather. ‘‘From high above, where fates were decided, these boys … were like currants.’’
Because we’re mostly limited to Radford’s observable present, he and other characters are sympathetic puzzles, their actions restrained and coded.
Like Radford, we’re lulled by the muteness of the country, the season and the Manor. When things go wrong, the violence sits ironically against the lighter incidents early in the novel. It also calls attention to the fragility of the Manor and its inhabitants.
Each of these quiet books has a dissonant ending; a strange new note is introduced. While the characters are worried about who they are and what they’ll do, the authors are playing with the role of chance in time, showing that events can come for us at any time, shaking us up, striking us out of the blue.
Ronnie Scott is a writer and critic.