Book Review: Wood Green by Sean Rabin

I found Wood Green by Sean Rabin on the Readings 2016 New Australian Fiction Shortlist. I have enormous respect for Readings as a bookstore chain, and admire their perseverance and success in this digital age. They employ passionate readers and their recommendations reflect that. This year they even won International Bookstore of the Year at the London Book Fair. Congratulations!

The shortlist was my first encounter with Wood Green. It’s published by Giramondo, an Australian publisher whose work focusses on the innovative and adventurous. Books that might not find a place in mainstream publishing. This is way outside my comfort zone. I tend to stick to books I know I will likely like, published by large publishers, destined to be commercially popular. Life is too short, after all.

Still, I’ve been challenging myself lately, exploring more literary, experimental styles. Life is to be lived, after all. Wood Green is definitely an exemplar of this.

To be honest, I don’t really know all the critiquing lingo. Actually, I’m not sure I know any lingo. But for starters, there aren’t any quotation marks in this book. It reads like an internal monologue and that’s cool and very effective in some respects. I’m told that’s very Cormac McCarthy-esque. To me it was curiously quiet, but at times I felt it got out of hand:

You don’t mind do you? They kept asking if they could pay you a visit, said Michael. Mind? With meatballs like these? said Lucian. See, I told you he’d love them, said Paul. I just thought it might be too early in the day, said Penny. Let’s have some music, said Maureen. To mountain climbers everywhere, said Paul. Cheers, said Michael. Cheers, said Maureen.

 And on, and on, and on. The book was unrelenting in its exploration of technique and style and I was surprised to find how much I loved that.

The story is equally unrelenting though and meanders with little narrative structure. It’s hard to figure out whether this is a thing of beauty, or the opposite. Seriously. I know. I’m being very vague but I’m still getting my head around this novel and it’s like an eel, the point just keeps slipping away.

Basically the plot goes something like this; Michael, a wannabe writer with a fear of flying, flies from Sydney to Tasmania and moves into a B&B with a quirky proprietor whose story never really plays out. Michael takes the position of a kind of biographer for the infamous local author Lucien Clarke. They smoke pot and explore music together and all the while Lucien is slowly losing his memory while Michael is putting together the pieces of his past and regaling them back to him. There are a flock of minor characters, not enough to truly round out the story, but enough to keep your interest.

Michael’s fear of flying is never really explored. In fact, most of his backstory isn’t explored. He just kind of pops up like a daisy, fully formed and yet with some minor defects.

And then it gets weirder. Seriously. I have no idea what was going on towards the end. Only, after a beautiful, well-developed setting, an eerily strange but compelling cast of characters, a sense of mystery, a well-developed sense of well – nothingness – just regular, run-of-the-mill life, it suddenly gets all sci-fi on you. I know I use the word nothingness and that is pretty strange, but the loveliness of this novel actually lies in the nothingness. In the lack of plot. In the silence of the landscape depicted through language. In the averageness of the characters. It was beautiful, until the last few chapters when it got weird. Really weird.

I’m honestly still confused by it. Is this brilliance? Is this the new landscape of Australian writing? Or is it just odd. I’m leaning towards odd. But maybe that’s just me.  And maybe that’s just fine, who isn’t a little quirky after all?

Amanda

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