I am reading Roger McDonald’s Miles Franklin Award-winning seventh novel, The Ballad of Desmond Kale, and amongst other things in this rollicking chronicle of the fledgling sheep industry in Australia, I am awe-struck at the author’s genius for characterisation. Here he is bringing the family of Joe Josephs to life :
Joe Josephs, Warren saw, was not to be judged by the gold threads in his weskit as being too fine for everyday use, or by the vainly perky hat he wore tipped back on his head, that would never stop any sun, and his gold teeth dangerously boasting the wealth that he carried in his smile. He was a shadowed, thin, sharpish crook of a man, but a cheerful and apparently kindly fellow well met.
You will note that this snippet not only tells us about Joe, but also about young Warren’s astute powers of observation.
This is Arthur, Joe’s son:
‘This one is mighty clean,’ said Arthur, as he dusted a blanket of fleas. He was a handsome boy of about seventeen, with thick dark eyebrows, a considerable sidelong way of looking a person over, and a greatly hooked nose that got in the way of his prominent dark eyeballs. He had long fingers and knobbly wrists. There was a violin case on the ground and Warren imagined he’d heard tunes being played on a fiddle earlier, the sounds carrying on the breezes as he came down the last half hour of track through Mundowey forest, where owls hooted back and forth and there was the ghost of nefarious doings behind every tree.
‘The ghost of nefarious doings’ … a subtle allusion to the way the land was cleared of its original inhabitants …
And this is Martha, Joe’s wife, who introduces herself to Warren by explaining that Joe
is the one that got me lagged for him, when he was already in irons on the filthy Thames, making me his fence without me knowing it, by having passed into my hands, by his cronies, a load of argentry, candlesticks, candelabra and ancestral plate …
If she’s bitter, she doesn’t show it:
As she spoke, Martha looked up at Warren from a humorous brown face fringed by greying brown curly hair. She was like a stout pot with a stone on its lid, that gave intense rattles with steam shooting out, every time she spoke. She was the one who gave Arthur his nose, you might say, from hers that was like a jug handle. The excitement of her conversation hit Warren direct, as she thrust her forehead to get against his, to get a hearing from him, and grabbed hard to his elbow and fingered his funny bone, and stepped on his toes as well. Then she grabbed both his cheeks and pinched them hard, muttering ‘luffly boy’ before spitting over her shoulder. As he reeled back from her aim, almost to the edge of the fire, she followed him and broke off her attention, bending over and juggling quart pots, sweating over the fierce hot bed of coals as if she had an argument with them for doing what they were wanted to do, throwing up heat.
The Ballad of Desmond Kale, by Roger McDonald, Knopf, 2005, p255-257
I will be ‘in conversation’ with Roger McDonald at the Bendigo Writers Festival on Saturday August 9th. Get your tickets or a festival pass here!