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.

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§ 5 Responses to Australian literature’s dark cloud

  • Nicole says:

    I had never thought of Australian literature this way, but you’re right! Perhaps it can be explained by our self-deprecating nature; if the stories are too positive, too uplifting or have too many ‘happy endings’ – does the writer feel less genuine. Is it un-Australian to be overtly optimistic in our writing..?

    • Laura says:

      I think allowances can be made, like if the novel is told from a child’s perspective it’s permissable for it to be optimistic because they don’t know any better. I just find it bizarre since we’re generally a well-off people and considered as such by the rest of the world that our stories take these depressing routes so often. I guess few people want to read about people like them.

      Or maybe it’s our way of subconsciously trying to legitimise what we do. Compared with the rest of the world, we’re still a young culture and our literature circles are so small, but if we put out works that broach real issues, however commonplace they may be, it proves that we’re serious aboout making worthwhile contributions to literature in Australia and as a whole. Maybe there isn’t a lot of freedom to play if you want to be taken seriously.

      • Nicole says:

        Yes – agreed. Sometimes we appear to have a fear of taking ourselves too seriously, as if we will be judged negatively for it.

  • Shannon McKeogh says:

    Have you read Toni Jordan’s Nine Days? It is not depressing. But the classics/prize-winners do tend to be sad stories don’t they?

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