Georgia Blain is an established Australian author, with some interesting books to her credit. The daughter of activist, author and broadcaster Anne Deveson and a violent father, she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists in 1998, and was shortlisted for the Kibble Literary Award for Women Writers in 2009 for the story of her fraught family life: Births, Deaths and Marriages, True Tales, confirming that there is a strong autobiographical basis for her fiction.
Closed for Winter (which I haven’t read) was her first novel in 1998 – and released as a film this year to reviews which mostly don’t care for its moody preoccupation with the past). Blain followed up with Candelo (1999), The Blind Eye (2001) and Names for Nothingness (2004). I loved Candelo, wasn’t very keen on Names for Nothingness and am mystified by The Blind Eye.
Candelo was wonderful. The first person narration has a powerful immediacy with a sense of broody introspection throughout the novel, which focuses on the dilemma of parents taking on important roles at the expense of the relationships they have with their children. Gillian Slovo explores this same territory in Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, (1997) about her famous parents, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, who were activists in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Their activism fractured normal family relationships, culminating in the murder of Ruth First by security forces in 1982. No less powerful for being less dramatic, in Candelo, Blain shows the damage done by a mother’s perpetual involvement in morally uplifting causes, because it makes her blind to the domestic situation around her.
Ursula is a child of the feminist movement, and her mother Violetta (Vi) is operatic in her causes. One of these causes is Mitchell. When she rescues him from a succession of foster homes Ursula is 14, and she falls a little in love with him when the family heads off on holiday to Candelo. A wonderful invention, Candelo is a wild and neglected house, marooned in the Australian bush – no phone, no neighbours, and hidden tracks to the sea. There are hidden places too, where Ursula and Mitchell can touch and feel – out of sight of a mother who wouldn’t see anyway.
With time and place shifting from a Sydney flat in the present to the Candelo of childhood, the reader learns about the family tragedy: the death in a car accident of little Evie, Vi’s ‘mistake’, born in the aftermath of the breakup of her relationship with Bernard, a QC. Evie is the only untroubled character in the novel. There are wonderful vignettes of her scampering through their lives with games of ‘Shop’, and Hide-and-Seek – always a little on the fringe of things because of her age, but content in the world of childhood. Bernard seems like an untroubled character too, cheerfully replacing lovers with insouciance because he falls in love easily. But his role in betraying Mitchell – in gaol for culpable driving – leaves a lot of unanswered questions and silences.
Not the least of which is, how ever did two such decisive parents end up with such children? Both of them lost, adrift, purposeless in life and utterly unable to communicate with each other. Simon is idealised: he is kind and gentle, sensitive and artistic. He drives a bus, carefully, for a living, and lives at home with Vi. He cannot cope with his own guilt but is more troubled by his parents’ betrayal – which seems all the worse because they abandon oft-professed principles they hold dear. Ursula is vague, indecisive, a disappointment to Vi – and although she sees her mother with clear eyes, she doesn’t explain her own role in this family tragedy. Everyone in this tale needs forgiveness…
But I nearly didn’t persist with Names for Nothingness. It was a whining sort of book, about dreary people. The central character, Sharn, was a rough wastrel of a girl who left home early, bummed around (presumably on the dole) and slept around indiscriminately until one day she got pregnant. It was as good as gang rape, but the suggestion is that she deserved it because she was too drunk to say no. (This is not an opinion I share. No always means No.)
Anyway, Sharn ends up at Sassafras with a pseudo guru named Simeon, where she lets herself be used again until she meets Liam, who unexpectedly loves her, and the unwanted child. This unwanted child, Kaitlyn, eventually has one of her own, which Sharn has to rescue from neglect, but Liam objects. He’s a bit of a loser by now, unemployed, cadging money from his mother, useless around the house. He decides he’s had enough and sets out to return the child and drifts into life without Sharn.
Both these characters have epiphanies: she’s a control freak and she realises she has to let go of Kaitlyn and ease up on Liam; he realises that Kaitlyn doesn’t care about the child. I felt like giving all these characters a good shake!
Which is just how I feel about the characters in The Blind Eye. Once again there is an enigmatic guru, this time a so-called healer, fiddling about with some strange so-called therapy involving homeopathy and long, presumably expensive interviews to seek out the cause of Silas’s angst. Pseudo-science is always expensive., but Simon is unbelievably rich since his parents died and left him their ill-gotten gains. He has plenty of money to shout his friends any amount of drugs and booze but he’s not happy. (Well, none of Blain’s characters ever are.)
Perhaps if he bought himself some of the trappings of wealth and enjoyed it, Silas might not need to indulge in grotesque self-harm, but no, he harks back to his mother’s derelict house in Port Tremaine, does more drugs and strikes up a strange relationship with Constance who is blind (but sees everything), Rudi the hippie abandoned by the commune and sulking in his garden, and Greta who sends him off to Daniel the healer (because the entire psychiatric profession has failed him). Daniel – who has no qualifications or expertise to deal with a seriously damaged psyche (and has one of the most irritating narrative voices of all time) – is trying to make sense of all this, and so is the mystified reader.
Having read three of Blain’s four novels, it seems to me that Blain is trapped in moody introspection about the past herself, and her work reflects the tragedies in her own life. (Her brother committed suicide, the subject of Anne Deveson’s Tell Me I’m Here (1998). At its best in Candelo, Blain’s preoccupation with past losses and wasted lives seems to have run its literary course…
PPS I read The Blind Eye to complete the What’s in a Name Challenge.