BOOK REVIEW : Falling Off the World From Down Under : THE SECOND BRIDEGROOM<i> by Rodney Hall</i> Farrar Straus & Giroux $19.95, 214 pages
Even an enchanted garden requires weeding; even a house of mysteries needs windows that work and joists that hold. And in hide-and-go-seek, it is helpful if the hider sticks around to be found.
That could be a primer for magic realists. In the case of the Australian writer Rodney Hall, author of the strange and powerful “Captivity Captive,” it verges on the patronizing. But “The Second Bridegroom,” described as the beginning of a trilogy in which “Captivity” is the end--at this point, the connection seems vague--needs grounding. It is haunting in parts, but the ghosts keep getting lost in the weeds or tumbling out of missing windows.
“The Second Bridegroom” evokes a note that may be peculiarly, though perhaps not exclusively, Australian. It is, roughly, of a colonizing that never took; of a land, a landscape that never accepted its settlers; of estrangement, in short. There is an age--about 4--when American children wonder why people at the “bottom” of the world don’t fall off. One of Australia’s literary themes is: We do.
Bearer of this theme, the protagonist of “Bridegroom” is a figure to match its intangible disquiet. Intangible he certainly is, even to the point of having no name. An involuntary arrival in Australia at the start of the 19th Century, he is, like so many of the country’s early white settlers, a transported convict.
The novel intercuts, in a deliberately erratic rhythm, among his youth on Britain’s Isle of Man, his manacled voyage to Australia, and what happens to him after he arrives. Appropriately to the theme, he recalls the years at home with a certain concreteness, while the journey and the time in Australia become more and more uncertain and ambiguous. At some point he goes mad. We are not quite sure when, and that creates our increasing displacement inside his narrative.
He is of a rebellious Manx family. The island, settled by Celts, had been under British rule for centuries and particularly under that of the Earl of Derby, who liked to call himself King of Man. The family’s nationalism found its expression through the traditional trade of smuggling, for which the narrator’s father was hanged. The son, a printer, expresses his own revolt by forging a book in the style of the great William Caxton; an artist’s insurgency, if you will, against a British national treasure.
On arriving in Sydney, he and a dozen others are acquired by a Mr. Atholl, who takes them to his land grant in New South Wales, a barely settled province. Unchained, he immediately flees into the bush. A clan of aborigines--they live on roots and grubs, cover themselves with feathers and, in repose, stand on one leg--take him in. He is partly a prisoner; partly a mascot and, in his fevered imagination, partly a shaman.
After two years of roving naked with them, he is appalled when they slay a young aborigine woman who violated their taboos by appearing before him. He and his captors/worshipers abandon each other; later, he will witness their raid on Atholl’s settlement.
They burn it down and spear most of the settlers. Atholl himself is killed, possibly by his wife. Mrs. Atholl and three of the indentured servants survive. The narrator is subsequently seized by Gabriel, one of the servants, and imprisoned in a supply shed. There, before he escapes once more, he pens his memoir.
It takes the form of letters to Mrs. Atholl. He has barely glimpsed her--he is nearsighted, we learn--but she obsesses him, and he imagines that she must share his deranged passion.
A deranged narrative can unveil or intensify things invisible or insufficiently stressed in a settled one. Certainly the pain and contorted spasms of the narrator’s mind convey the notion of an alien culture imposing itself on a land, and of the land striking back.
It is appropriate that the narrator, whose Celtic forebears had been colonized by the British, should register this new imposition on the other side of the world. And the fact that he feels guilty horror at the violence of the aborigines--his riven state of mind is part of its unhinging--is also appropriate. He is as much an alien, even in his revolt, as the Atholls.
There are beautiful and haunting moments in Hall’s story. But it is too disordered in its intuitive and daring connections and disconnections to work very well. Everything in the narrator’s tumultuous words is suggestive, but many of the suggestions seem not to lead anywhere.
When he tells us he has killed a man--Gabriel--and then the man turns up alive; when he refers to a youthful mentor with the same name as the author; when he relates his obsession for the barely discerned Mrs. Atholl, and when he insists repeatedly that he is both nearsighted and a forger, we are given clues to hiding places where it is hard for the reader to discover that anything is, in fact, concealed.
Next: Judith Freeman reviews “Jean Rhys: Life and Work” by Carol Angier (Little, Brown).