Australian literature’s dark cloud
October 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
Why is it that Australian novels are often so depressing? That may be a gross exaggeration, but it’s definitely true of many of the Australian books I’ve read so far this year including Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey and most recently, Matt Nable’s Faces in the Clouds.
Matt Nable’s second novel is about twin brothers, Stephen and Lawrence, army kids growing up in the barracks in rural NSW. Lawrence has an undisclosed mental disability, which Stephen occassionally resents him for. Their relationship is a complex one, but becomes even more so when their parents die in a horrendous car accident that leaves twelve-year-old Stephen’s face temporarily paralysed. In contrast, Lawrence’s physical wounds are few, but as time passes he recognises an emptiness within himself that he just can’t articulate. Following the accident, the brothers fall under the care of their godparents and their lives take a turn for the worse, and so it goes; grief, abuse, lies, jail, heroin addiction and suicide. Nable’s attempt at a hopeful ending does little to redeem the melting pot of despair and misery that is this book. That’s not to say that it’s poorly written, it’s just so desperately sad.
Does living in Australia do this to writers – inspire them to write hopeless stories? Are these kinds of stories the only Australian stories worth telling? Surely not. I suppose they may be the most powerful and affecting. After all, this book is the first I’ve read in a while that’s incited such a strong reaction in me – I’m writing a blog post about it for goodness sake! However, there’s still a part of me that recoils at the violence and misery which pervades this book and many Australian novels like it.
I understand that some Australians do live like the characters in these books, but I feel like these heart-breaking stories are overly-represented in Australian literature. Many of these characters, even though they may escape their communities, seem unable to stay out of trouble and relieve themselves of any of their baggage. They’re pre-programmed for devastation and I don’t know if that’s fair.
The ending of Nable’s novel suggests that the next generation will be better off, but I have my doubts. I can only visualise the trials ahead, but maybe that’s just me reverting to the “Australian” way of thinking. We can’t all be doomed, surely.
As I was reading it, Faces in the Clouds reminded me very much of another Australian novel, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, which I consider to be superior. Winton’s characters have moments of happiness amidst the hardship that Nable’s characters tend to be denied. A dark cloud of foreboding hovers over Stephen and Lawrence for their entire story, making the experience of reading it quite exhausting.
Am I reading too much into this? Does Australian literature have a larger share of depressing stories than other cultures or is it just that I happen to pick them up more frequently? Or is it merely that the well-received and most celebrated Australian novels focus on dark subjects? Feel free to share your thoughts.