Review: Australiana by Yumna Kassab

Australiana begins and ends with a thief. The first are the thieves that break into a well-to-do house. How many there are isn’t clear, nor what they’re after. They steal only an old silver spoon and otherwise seem harmless. The last is Captain Thunderbolt, the bushranger who roamed central New South Wales between 1863 and 1870. The story doesn’t travel very far in between: each section of this book is set in and around the New South Wales town of Tamworth. Some are real places, others fictional, in a book that is straightforward to read, even weightless, but becomes an impossible Rubix cube, shifting every time you try to solve it. Not least the puzzle, or perhaps instruction, posed by the subtitle: “a novel”.

Like Kassab’s first book The House Of Youssef, Australiana is told in pieces. The first section, entitled the The Town, describes the inhabitants of Moonbi. Each scene picks up up a character or an object from the previous, which becomes the question that drives the narrative: where will it go next, past, present, future? A neighbour, an op-shop volunteer, a husband or wife? Sometimes a name or a detail pins a scene down, mostly the characters are anonymous.

The second section, My Face Is Nameless, is much more like the apparently unlinked scenes of Kassab’s first book, these set in the fictional town of Pillarton. Following these there is The Blind Side, a narration from an ageing cocky who is troubled by the behaviour of his closest friend. It is faultless; I don’t think I have read anything that comes so close to getting under the skin of this Australian archetype. The pride, the chip on the shoulder about city people, the fatalism and suspicion: this is a pitch perfect inhabitation of a particular kind of rural patriarch whose values are loyalty, independence and a stiff upper lip. Next comes Pilliga, a ghost story set in the scrub of the same name, one of the biggest uncleared areas west of the Great Dividing Range and sadly now perhaps best known for the efforts of coal seam gas producers to undermine it. A collection of poems and scenes about Thunderbolt finishes the book.

Even among the mostly anonymous crowd, some characters pierce the book like a needle: the boy who sets his father’s field alight in revenge; the child murderer and abuser with his “night-time room”, “teaching them about the darkness that has been there forever”. There’s a fairytale about a father finding the right suitor for his daughter and a fantastical satire in which animals take the town hostage. They are details that hold you for a moment, but as the old cocky says, “as if they matter, when we know they are mere markers, random points, signalling the end”. The end of what? Life, certainly, but perhaps there’s something else.

There are grim jokes (a scene entitled “Speed Dating”), there are banalities, there are so many hopes and dreams and disappointments. There is quite a lot of crime and death, as in The House Of Yussuf. Drought haunts the novel. It is both the eternal fear of rural communities and also the specific circumstances of the 2017-19 drought that gripped this part of the world, one of the worst ever recorded in the country. The hills remain green but the green is a lie, several characters note. The drought ruins farms, turns the earth to dust, forces people off the land. Tensions simmer. Several men suicide (drought is associated with higher rates of suicide in rural Australia where suicide rates are already higher than cities). “When the river runs dry, the town runs red,” states the book’s epigraph, entwining climate and violence in an ill omen of the future.

I return to the question of the subtitle: how to read this as a novel? The question is an energising one. The play with how text works brings to mind Alexis Wright and Gerald Murnane, perhaps the two other most innovative recent Australian writers. Much like Kassab’s first book, it reads like a painting, a pointillist depiction of a rural community. We get glimpses of lives but no more, a sense of connections. There is the weight of history, particularly among the bodies that lie in the earth in Pilliga, and underneath it all is violence and theft of colonisation and dispossession that continues in the ongoing extractive attitude towards the land. We are all thieves, the novel poses, even if its depiction of thievery is oh-so-human. Kassab’s main achievement here may be mood, the uneasy tenure that us settlers have on this land, perpetually at risk of being exposed. We are ill-equipped to confront that fact.

Gay rating: not gay.

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