It doesn’t take long to read this novella – only an hour or so – but it certainly leaves an impact, especially so soon after the Victorian bushfires on Black Saturday.
Luke and Anna are thirtysomethings from Sydney who make a tree change, settling in the coastal hamlet of Garra Nalla. There they leave behind the pressures of city life and mild envy of more successful friends with large mortgages and share portfolios to monitor. They were relieved to be free of ‘dinner parties [where] people spoke solemnly of their renovations; with the air of diplomats renegotiating the Geneva Convention they discoursed on the problems of installing a second bathroom.’ (p8)
Lohrey deftly sketches the housing affordability crisis: these two work hard but they can’t afford Sydney and they can’t even do the bush on their own. They need the help of both sets of parents to buy the old Federation house, affordable only because it lacks sea views. They learn to love the simple things, like bird-watching; they plant a vegie patch. They make friends and play tennis with friends on a simple backyard court, with nary a Nike to be seen. Here they discuss drought-proofing their properties with appropriate solemnity for it has barely rained for seven years and every drop is precious. Two showers a week – that’s a very arresting image!
The ease of their lifestyle compared to the stress of city life is offset by this fear of the drought, the hard physical labour of planting, and the aymmetrical patterns of their sleep. She’s a night owl, wedded to CNN; he sleeps soundly and easily at night. And both of them see the boy. Lohrey handles this little apparition with great sensitivity. It is not until the end of the novella that we learn why they see this child flitting in and out of their lives:
…to their great delight, on each of these journeys, the boy chose to accompany them. In the claustrophobic spaces of their apartment his appearances were erratic and unpredictable, but once out on the freeway they would glance behind them and there he would be, lap-sashed on the back seat, and with an enquiring look on his face; that dreamy, expectant expression that children get when they are travelling to an unknown destination. (p10)
The bushfire, when it comes, is as savage and unpredictable as we have all now learned to fear. Lohrey shows without scorn the complacency of the locals who declare that the fires ‘never reach the coast’ (p92) and the belated preparations of the tree changers. Luke and Anna discover too late that their pumps won’t work if the electricity fails, and they don’t clear a firebreak until the fire is almost upon them. Experience and inexperience alike fail when drought and wind conspire as they never have before to create a conflagration that behaves in uncharacteristic ways.
It’s too easy to be wise after the event. Knowing about radiant heat and ember attacks is one thing; being psychologically able to deal with them is another and there are many who overestimate their ability to confront fire in all its raw and capricious power. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t try to flee a fire at the last minute, but who can foretell panic?
Lohrey’s last book, The Philosopher’s Doll, was about the ethical issues confronting couples with dissimilar desires about parenthood. In Vertigo her characters share a loss and deal with it in different but complementary ways. There is a sense of great love between these two and the reader closes this slim book with hope for them both.
BTW I found a most intriguing review on a website devoted to W.G. Sebald, which makes explicit some ‘Sebaldian’ touches, and TasPhoto has some interesting asides about the thumbnail photos by Lorraine Biggs. I would have liked these photos granted a whole page, but perhaps the publisher had to keep within a certain number of pages to keep printing costs down.
Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title:Vertigo: A Novella
Publisher: Black Inc 2009
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: Vertigo: A Novella