Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2009

The World Beneath (2009), by Cate Kennedy #2

The World BeneathAs I wrote last night, Cate Kennedy’s first novel The World Beneath is my pick for the 2010 Miles Franklin.  (Yes, I know, it’s really far too soon to predict this, because half the books in the running aren’t even in the shops yet, but still I say, they are going to have to be very, very good indeed to be serious contenders for the prize.)

As ANZ LitLovers know:

The Miles Franklin Literary Award celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia. It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.  (MF Trust website).

The World Beneath is uniquely Australian.  The main action of the novel takes place in the Tasmanian Wilderness, and two of its central characters came of age in the defining political moment of 1983 – the fight to save the Franklin River.   What is so interesting is the intersection of the intense significance of this moment for Rich and Sandy, with their daughter’s indifference to it.  It’s all too long ago for fifteen-year-old Sophie, and she’s heard about it too many times.

The World Beneath takes a while to lure the reader in, because these three characters are each in their own way so tiresome that you don’t want them in your life, not even in the pages of a book!  But then before you know it you are there in the Tassie wilderness with Sophie and Rich and it’s so compelling you can’t put it down.

I admit I’m not much interested in the Great Outdoors.  I’ve done a bit of desultory bushwalking, but only day walks and nothing too arduous.  The closest I’ve come to mountain climbing is my ascent of Hanging Rock, and truth be told I’m more likely to get lost in the wilds of outer suburban Melbourne when the Navman loses its satellite connection than I am in the great wild places of Australia.  But when I was younger I used to entertain vague ideas about a Lake St Clair walk, one of the easy day walks that friends told me I might enjoy.  Now, with a crook ankle I could blame for my sedentary ways, I cheerfully own up to not wanting to plod though the bush ever again.

So in some ways I’m a little bit like Rich, middle-aged father of Sophie and instigator of the trip.  It’s his fantasy to revisit the triumphs of his youth, but since he got arrested at the 1983 blockade before actually doing much of the wilderness experience, he doesn’t really have any idea what’s involved in serious bushwalking.  Once he gets up on the mountain with Sophie he can’t quite see the point of it all, tramping through mud and damp grasses, lugging a heavy pack while a piercingly cold wind whips mist and drizzle across any view he might possibly see.  Poor Rich, with his aching shoulders and blistered heel, counting down the hours until he reaches the hut and can have a tasteless meal in the company of fervent enthusiasts!

He’s 40-something, and a shallow sort of fellow, who makes his living editing advertorials but pretends to be a photojournalist.  That’s why he’s lugging a heavy camera with him, hoping to emulate the great Peter Dombrovskis whose famous photograph Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River galvanised the nation into saving the Franklin River – but Rich’s burdens are bigger than just his so-last century SLR camera.   He’s trying to build a relationship with his teenage daughter, abandoned by him fifteen years ago.  The emotional baggage of his failed relationships is as heavy as his brand new badly-adjusted backpack.

Sophie doesn’t make it at all easy.  If ever I wanted a daughter, this character has made me ever grateful for my nice, uncomplicated son.  Even when communication consisted of me trying to guess the meaning of the adolescent grunt, I never had to endure the hostility and derision of a fifteen-year-old daughter like this Sophie.  Cate Kennedy has done a brilliant job of bringing the girl to awkward, painful life, her scornful thoughts and patronising demeanour corroding across the pages as she demolishes her foolish mother’s confidence and identity.

Sandy is the least likeable of the three, even though she doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body. She’s one of those daffy middle-aged hippies, wandering about in shapeless cheesecloth and CAA sandals, into tantrics and gemstones and the healing power of macrobiotic feel-good foods.  She can’t buy a pair of socks without worrying about who’s being oppressed by her actions, but she’s too dopey to realise that the carbon footprint of her ancient car is worse than a fuel-efficient new one.  She  drives Sophie mad with her endless prattle, pontificating about recycling and the virtue of shabby clothes, always on the moral high ground but stuck firmly in the hippie anti-economy and actually contributing very little to the community she lives in.  She’s no caricature though, and has her own complex issues to iron out – when her head clears, that is, and she can see what they are.  I bet Cate Kennedy had fun creating her (and I bet I know which central Victorian town with that pervasive scent of marijuana in the main street was the model for Ayresville too!)

It’s when Sophie and Rich set off for Tasmania, while Sandy frets over her worries at the Mandala Holistic Wellness Centre, that the novel exerts its grip on the reader.  My son took off for on a school trip to do the same Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair walk just before his 18th birthday, and no parent can take this lightly.  His school made a point of making sure that he had all the right equipment, and provision had to be made for notoriously nasty weather.  The way Kennedy evokes the cold, the hail, the fog, and the biting wind of this remorseless world where the weather has total control, is fascinating.

She felt the frigid wind lessen as they scrambled down the cliff, but she could hear it shaking the trees behind and above them, its hissing voice.  She put out her hands and swung herself between two crooked trees that flexed with her weight, thought suddenly about the whole tough and stunted landscape here battening down the hatches ready for the next onslaught, tightening its grip and hanging on, growing a tenacious inch each year.  She was slipping and scrambling, her chin tucked in hard and knees jarring all the way down, and she thought of how she’d turned her nose up at the hard bunk-bed platforms in the huts, and the coal and gas fires that had been burning and the meals she’d left half-finished.

Then they were down, lurching over shale and tussocks, and Rich was pulling her into a rocky spot sheltered by mean little shrubs – impossible, really, to imagine how these stalky, scratchy little bushes would ever protect them from anything – and there was nothing for it but to push her icicle fingers inside her clothes, in under her arms, to try to warm them enough to fumble open the zips and fasteners on her pack.  In there was nothing but a few laughable folded layers of coated plastic that somehow were meant to shelter them from this storm, rolling in to drown them.

‘Get your tent out,’ Rich shouted.  ‘I’ll set up mine as an extra roof’, and she heard how he had to raise his voice against the rising wind and saw him pause uncertainly then start hauling some stones into a circle, pushing them into place with his boot as if he was going to make a fire in contravention of all the park bylaws.  Then he stopped that too and began unzipping his pack, digging down the side and tugging out his waterproof jacket which billowed as he shook it out, gesturing for her to grab hers and do the same.  Then she came out of her trance as the same gust of wind caught the tent fly she was unrolling and snapped it hard as a whip into her chest and the first hard pellets of hail struck her naked neck, stinging the skin like a needle stippling a design. (p243)

Sophie, psychologically alone because Rich is useless, huddles into herself as she begins to see her parents as they really are.  It was the commodification of the wilderness experience that made Rich go off the beaten path and into the more treacherous Labyrinth, ignoring the park’s warning signs.  (I don’t have the ‘adventure gene’ but I can understand the disappointment trekkers feel when they are surrounded by other people all the time and the ‘strategic management’ of the walk seems to have eliminated the risks that are part of adventure.  The problem is that walkers do indeed die on this track when the weather turns nasty.)  Rich wants to earn Sophie’s admiration by stepping out of the mould, but his actions put them in grave peril…

She heard a sound she hardly recognised escaping from her.  It wasn’t a cry of fear, but a long open-mouthed yell of frustration, of fury.  She was going to die here and she had never even learned to surf or had sex with a boy, she’d hardly started her life and yet the world was going to allow this; here was where it was going to end… (p319)

It’s not possible to write more without giving away some of the most compelling aspects of this gripping plot.  It’s a coming-of-age story featuring not just an adolescent but two adults belatedly growing up as well.   All three have to confront powerful elements, both real and metaphysical.  It’s a superb evocation of contemporary life contrasted with the ancient power of the wilderness.  It would make a wonderful book for discussion in book groups because there are unresolved and complex moral issues embedded in the story line.

Go buy it!

PS 1.10.09 For an interesting interview with Cate Kennedy, see The Ember

Author: Cate Kennedy
Title: The World Beneath
Publisher: Scribe 2009
ISBN: 9781921372964
Source: Kingston Library, and then I bought my own copy from Top Titles in Brighton, $32.95.

Fishpond: The World Beneath


  1. This sounds fabulous.

    I went to Cradle Mountain in 2004 and went on solo trek around the lake and absolutely loved it. It is a truly beautiful part of the world.

    We also went on a bit of a diversion and visited the Franklin River — went up it on a boat to the scene of the blockade. It was a kind of emotional experience to be honest — such a magical place and it could have all been lost so easily.


    • Hi Kim, We did a boat trip up the Gordon River, and that was great too. We wanted to do a scenic flight but the weather was so foul they weren’t allowing any flights. There’s been a bit of a brouha-ha here over solo hiking because a Victorian cabinet minister went solo into the alps and got lost (and found, at considerable expense to the taxpayer). The criticism that he should have had a satellite tracker seems valid to me, but not that people should never walk solo…As I’ve said above, I don’t have the adventure gene, but my mother and son do, and through them I can understand that it’s somehow important for some souls to be able to venture into danger sometimes, and that being alone is part of the experience. My mother has climbed mountains in Ireland and Africa, and my son has gone ice-climbing in NZ etc. What I think is brilliant about this book is the way it portrays the beauty and the terror so well… Lisa


  2. Lisa, your enthusiasm has moved this up the TBR pile. Hope to agree with you.

    My dad and his family are from Tasmania and it is a beautiful place, worth breaking any sedentary habits to see.


    • Oh I didn’t mean to imply that *Tasmania* isn’t worth seeing – far from it. My husband and I go there every other year (he has a Hobart conference to go to; I dawdle around in Salamanca Place). We drove around the whole island in the 1990s and loved every minute of it, and just this last summer had a lovely week exploring the Huon Valley, see
      I love Tassie, and I think it’s amazing how many brilliant writers have their origins there: Christopher Koch; Julie Leigh and Richard Flanagan for a start.


  3. I’m reading this at the moment, and I’m glad you said it takes a while to lure the reader in. I love Cate Kennedy’s short stories, and am really interested to see what her transitions like.

    I’m finding all the setting up of character a little boring, and I’ve realised maybe it’s because the characters themselves are tiresome!


  4. Hi Megan, welcome to the conversation:)
    These characters really do get under the skin, I found, especially Sophie, who exerted a horrid fascination. I had my share of scornful altercations with my parents, but Sophie is well beyond that. She is what friends of mine with teenage daughters hint at, with exhausted embarrassment!
    What I thought was masterly was the way Sophie is transformed by her experience in the wilderness and yet remains true to herself. I can’t say more without spoilers…


  5. […] to see my review, click here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The World Beneath, by Cate Kennedy#2Stepping Off: […]


  6. Fantastic post, Lisa- and isn’t that David Noble link you’ve provided fantastic. Although in a curious hypertextuality (or something), I reckon that Rich himself could have written this page!


  7. *chuckle* I can’t quite see Rich making it to the top myself…
    I had a lovely time finding a link I could use…there are some brilliant photographers doing wonderful work in the wilderness, and when you consider that they have to carry fancy photography gear as well as all the usual stuff, it’s even more impressive.
    Mind you, I have a lovely photo of The Offspring on the top of Cradle Mountain – taken with an ordinary automatic camera by one of his school friends. It’s the talent of the photographer and catching the moment that counts as much as the gear.


  8. […] the author: one on the Radio National Book Show and another at The Ember, and good blog posts by Lisa at ANZLitlovers and Kerryn Goldsworthy at Australian Literature Diary.  I must admit that, particularly after […]


  9. […] The World Beneath (2009) by Cate Kennedy (Australia) […]


  10. […] Troy or I would have created a real quandary for myself! Last year I read Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath, loved it, and declared it my pick for the 2010 Miles Franklin award.  That’s a gripping […]


  11. […] The World Beneath by Cate Kennedy, see my review […]


  12. […] Franklin Literary Award has been announced.  I am astonished to see that Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath has been […]


  13. […] contrasting contemporary Australian lifestyles with the timelessness of the wilderness.  See my review. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Fugitive Blue, by Claire Thomas (Beware: […]


  14. […] Cate Kennedy has won the People’s Choice Award for The World Beneath (see my review). […]


  15. […] World Beneath by Cate Kennedy and Come Inside by newcomer G.I. (Glenys) Osborne.  See my reviews here and here […]


  16. […] Update: to see my review, click here. […]


  17. […] are entirely different to those which feature in the bleak wilderness of Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath or the uncompromising isolation of Wildlight, by Robyn […]


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