Most serious novelists find it difficult enough to tap the essence, or even part of it, of their one and only country. How much more difficult then to reside for a time in several countries, attempting in each ‘only to connect’ in successive and different social and emotional climes.
David Martin went through the experience with novels set in England, India, and, ultimately, Australia. Victor Kelleher has also roamed widely from his birthplace in London – first to Scotland, then to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Those peregrinations have given his writings a wide angled and humanistic view, though perhaps only a tenuous grasp of the Australian reality.
His novel, Wintering, is not, in some literary circles, required to meet the usual criteria, since it is regarded as an experimental application of favourably regarded new literary theories. Which is, of course, fine – if it works.
Wintering is concerned with Black/white divisions in contemporary Australia, beginning with a punitive assault on an Aboriginal tribe in the New England mountains in the 1830’s. In this assault white settlers forced Aboriginals to leap to their death over the sheer cliff, and the subsequent maltreatment of a lone woman survivor. This story has its antecedent in Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup, but in her novel Astley did what she does very well, turning her well honed eye on a small town middle class morality. And it worked, for she took her characters through a twenty year time span so that those who committed the outrage at the beginning still refusing to face up to it at the close.
Kelleher is more ambitious, jumping his story 150 years, with the memory of that shameful happening becoming part of the collective consciousness of today’s Blacks and some whites. A grand scheme – but then, only if it works.
To make it work a highly complex set of sub-plots and parallel stories is utilised. So many that the the key characters are overshadowed by the structure, which may have been the purpose. There are too many words about emotions, but little emotion or emotive writing. Kelleher, an academic of some distinction, is an intellectual writer.
Onto the principals, Jack, Benny and Bridget
Jack, a twenty five year old male university drop out, is the narrator and pivotal character. His mate is Benny, Buddhist, drifter and former 1960’s anti-Viet Nam war activist. Jack is the occasional lover of Bridget, Benny’s amour of the protest years. Jack carried a massive burden of guilt without understanding why. His guilt stems from the 1788 white invasion and genocidal war, about letting Benny down when he
is bashed and reduced to existing on a machine, about his relationship with Bridget and about his father. Late in the book he also discovers that he is the survivor of twins, thus accounting for the lost side of his personality. Jack is confused, and well he might be.
Benny we scarcely meet. His part is to survive on a power point extension in hospital, to be written about and spoken to by Jack, who, for reasons unclear, has a brief affair with Benny’s Tongan nurse.
Bridget, who is part Aboriginal, sees no future in a life with the much younger Jack. She is raised to be a leader among her people, seeking revenge for the 1830’s massacre. Yet we never see her in this role, even though she is rather loftily equated with Kali, the Hindu goddess who is worshipped with human sacrifices.
When we meet Bridget/Kali she has naive plans to use as her instrument of revenge a bunch of aging, but emotionally and politically adolescent leftovers from the 1960’s who have apparently been hibernating for twenty years in the mountains waiting for their day. They have acquired a nuclear device discarded at Maralinga which they are going to dump into a town water supply if the government doesn’t accede to a list of demands.
This kind of nonsense has been abandoned even by exploitation movies and television drama, and was sent up and sent off by the Get Smart team more years ago than one cares to remember. The sixties nostalgia cliche does tend to live on in yuppie circles, despite becoming a caricature of itself in the entertainment industry, and Kelleher’s group does have a saving grace. They don’t sit around strumming guitars and singing Beatles songs.
If all this isn’t enough, the story is told through a swag of stylistic forms – flash backs, flash forwards, pages of italic print, some scenes written as drama, etc. Nothing though is sustained and developed, everything is done in quick takes like a soap opera. And this is not a block buster novel, it is all skimped into a slim 60,000 words. Which is not a lot for your thirty bucks.
Of all the styles employed the most eye catching one are those sections in which Jack has attempted to write Bridget’s story, and presents his effort to the goddess as a novice’s offering. She is not amused, and shows her displeasure by scoring out his script with pencil lines drawn diagonally across the pages, which are represented just so in the book. Divine she may not be, but Bridget does have potential as a critic.
This, we have been told by Rosemary Sorenson in The Sydney Morning Herald, “….is not a trick enforced on thewriting for its own sake but a elegantly satisfying way of dealing with the traps that his (Kelleher’s) topic sets up”. If this catches on, readers are in for an irritating time. Suppose Bridget had put a match to the offending sheets, would we then have a number of charred pages bound into the book? Or if she had done something unmentionable with them, would we be expected to work through a decidely unhygienic, if elegantly satisfying, volume?
An ending, without any deep understanding of the issues raised, is devised when Jack and Bridget set Benny free, as they put it, by smothering him on his hospital bed, and another one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
Wintering may work well for those looking for new literary theories packaged as a novel, but it fails to meet the real test that faces any novel. Which is, no matter what literary style or form is employed, does the author create memorable characters, unfolding and growing in a credible narrative? Victor Kelleher doesn’t do this, he offers instead a set of cliches and contrivances and he proves once again that laboured theoretical writing is no substitute for creative imagination.
He has written in sympathy with Aboriginal people, but with little understanding of them, or their problems and aspirations in contemporary Australia, and it is difficult to see how his book could assist their movement in any way.