What a treat this turned out to be! I’m making my way through the Miles Franklin shortlist, and from some of the reviews I’d read I really wasn’t sure that I was going to like this one, but it turns out to be a most interesting book. (Actually, the judges have a difficult task ahead of them this year with so many fine books hitting the shelves – I’m glad I don’t have to decide which one should win!)
Ice begins with Malcolm McEachern, an entrepreneur who transports an iceberg to Sydney Harbour in the early days of the colony. It’s hacked to bits and used in a variety of ways: for ice in luxury drinks, as a refrigerant and as a preservative for corpses, not least for the body of a sailor who’d died in Antarctic waters 40 years before.
And then on p38 there is a sudden, disorienting jolt and the narrative switches from 3rd person past tense omniscient to 2nd person present, the era signalled almost casually by the reference to the sails of the Sydney Opera House. The un-named subject addressed by the narrator is some kind of researcher whose ‘neat detective work’ reveals Malcolm’s childhood in Islay, in Glasgow and in London. The narrative then drifts back to the past until p43 when the researcher is revealed as Beatrice who lies in a coma, perhaps after an assault of some kind. Her lover, as yet genderless, (but not if you’ve read the blurb on the back) is trying to complete her research for her. So the narrative consists of research (some by her and some by him) and his one-way conversation with his unconscious wife.
It’s really difficult to write about what happens and how this book is constructed without revealing more than I should. The tricky thing with Ice is that it’s not just plot points that are relevant. There are segments that seem very strange and incoherent, and had I not read Tim Hall’s helpful piece in the Australian Book Review I might not have worked out how brilliantly Nowra has constructed these parallel narratives. Part of the pleasure in this book is the moment when it dawns on you what Nowra is up to, and then the fun of tracing back through the pages to see where the transitions are.
Nowra also plays around with ‘ice’ in its too-common contemporary manifestation, but I most enjoyed his replication of 19th century Australia. There is a superb description of Collins St on p182 and Cairns on p191; there’s also a nice credit to Queen Victoria on p149 for her prescient recognition that:
the ice-making machine was the beginning of a revolution…it had defeated putrescence and it had overcome the inevitable decay of death. It was unnatural – and that was the point. It would turn notions of decay and death upside down. The unnatural would become the way of things.
All kinds of unnatural things proceed to happen in this intriguing study of obsession. There are some fabulously memorable characters, some of whom are based on real people. I was especially fond of the Frenchman Eugene Nicolle, who teaches Malcolm the importance of dressing to impress (p111) and the lugubrious Andrew whose cautious personality gets swamped by Malcolm’s soaring ambitions.
I was a little unnerved by Nowra’s somewhat negative portrayals of Aborigines. Describing Malcolm’s interest and ambitions, he writes ‘He was especially intrigued by Australia, with its cannibal Aborigines.’ (p49) This is not something I’ve come across before, and I wondered why Nowra would choose to include it. Then on p108 he uses the term n—– a term used in the 19th century but not now (except by racists, I suppose). The narrator who is writing this biography for Beatrice is writing some time after the completion of the Sydney Opera House – and that narrator must be aware (as must be Nowra himself) of the sensitivities around this word’s use. Why does Nowra choose to use it? Why does he show Aborigines to be liars and savages (p192-3) and have them squabble like children over a mirror? If he is trying to be authentic in representing 19th century racism, it seems unnecessarily provocative to me.
This quibble aside, Ice is a fine book, and if it were not up against a stellar cast of contenders, I’d feel confident about placing a small bet on its chances in the Miles Franklin!
Author: Louis Nowra
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2008
Source: Personal copy, $32.95, from Shearers on Norton Bookshop