Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2011

Time’s Long Ruin by Stephen Orr

Miles Franklin c1940 (Source: Wikipedia)

Time's Long RuinI put off reading this book.  Despite its inclusion in the longlist for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award and regional shortlist for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, I feared it would be like the execrable Room and I don’t much like the idea of novelists mining the pain of celebrity victims for their books. For Time’s Long Ruin is loosely based on the disappearance of the Beaumont children in Adelaide in 1966, and their parents, if still living, would be in their eighties.  They have, by all accounts, had enough of the publicity and speculation that has surrounded the tragedy of their loss, and I think there is no merit in pandering to ghoulish public curiosity about crime of any kind, much less this one.

Stephen Orr, however, has written a sensitive book, which has for me transformed the static grainy images of the lost children that have haunted the nation’s consciousness for forty years or more.  In his novel they are real people, with individual personalities and the irrepressible charm of real children.  For all of Part 1 Janice, Anna and Gavin Riley are neighbours and playmates to Henry, aged nine.  In a carefree world that ended on Australia Day 1960 [1]  they rejoice in the anarchy of street life, late hours and minimal parental supervision, free to roam in a now mythic Australian childhood.

Janice  in particular is a marvellous creation.  She’s the same age as Henry and a foil to his seriousness.  She’s funny, and (behind adults’ backs) irrepressibly cheeky.   Clever, kindly, and responsible, she is the quintessential big sister to Gavin and Anna – but she has also taken Henry under her wing.  Henry has a club foot, and in the days when treatment for this condition was primitive, he can’t run, or play sport, or negotiate the sandy beaches of Adelaide.  Janice stands up for him against bullies and modifies games so that he can play.  Together they tough it out against their parents’ endless marital conflicts, an alliance that seems as natural to Henry as if they were siblings.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Before the disappearance, the atmosphere is built up with multiple references to the fragility of life.

  • The grief of neighbours Con and Rosa Pedavolis is pervasive.  Their little boy drowned some years ago, swimming with his father;
  • On a train trip, the youngest of the Riley children, Gavin, disappears to play with another child, evoking that inchoate panic that all parents feel when their child is briefly missing;
  • Dr Gunn tells Henry about boys used as riveters on ships in days gone by, when they were used to access spaces too small for adults, sometimes never to return;
  • Henry’s mother warns him that he needs other friends as well as the Rileys, in case they go away; and
  • The would-be spiritualist Kazz finds under the lino at her house, a letter from a child who died.

There are foreshadowings too, that there will be no resolution:

  • The death of the Somerton Mystery Man fascinates Bill Riley but Bob Page says that [at] some point you gotta say enough’s enough.  Stop wasting your time.  Otherwise you’d go crazy’ (p83)
  • There’s no such thing as ‘closure’ for Rosa.  Their ‘Healing Tree’ can’t bring back her dead child and she grieves his loss every day of her life. She knows what Bill and Liz will go through, and she knows she cannot help because no one can.

As we all did in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, Henry reads the newspaper the day after his friends have vanished.  The ordinary has become the unthinkable:

We found Janice, Gavin and Anna on the bottom of page seven, standing in their backyard holding their stolen flowers, grinning in grey shades that transformed their ordinary shoes, shirts and socks into relics, artefacts, clues, evidence.  (p226)

This is the real achievement of this book, to make real the catastrophic transformation that takes place for all the many and varied victims of this or any crime.   The pictures Henry sees are not real to him.  He still sees the children smiling at him, close by and doing what they had always done.  ‘They were annoying and funny and helpful and a pain to babysit.  But they were my friends, and I was starting to miss them’ he says (p227).  We feel his pain, because we know that clever as his dad the detective may be, Bob Page is not going to find the children.  This tragedy is not just a lifelong burden for the bereaved parents, but for childhood friends, classmates, teachers, neighbours, and work-mates, everyone who ever worked on the case or searched the bush, and a generation of children and their families who were shocked out of complacency about the safety of the Australian suburbs.

I found it really hard to read Part 2.  The fruitless searches and interrogations, the reassurances, the hope, the memories.  The theorising: what did this piece of memorabilia mean? What did that entry in the child’s diary mean? And then, also, what might have been, with the littler ones too young to lived much of life, or to leave behind sacred memorabilia to endlessly torture their loved ones .

Orr shows it all.  The endless, hopeless swirl of thoughts about who, and how, and why.   The guilt about what could have been prevented, about anger and discipline and careless words, the anguished recollection of unkind acts and sins of omission that all parents inevitably commit.  Accusations, doubt, blame, apologies.   It is how we imagine it must be for the bereaved, when, all too often, we read or hear in the media about some other child vanishing, and with a slight sense of inexplicable guilt, we rejoice in our own children’s safety.

I don’t know whether someone younger than me whose childhood didn’t include the tragedy of the Beaumont disappearance would find this so distressing.  Guilt, anguish, blame and self-blame, thinking the same thoughts a thousand times (p 275).  At times I found myself close to tears reading it, knowing that it isn’t really fiction at all.  I suspect that the emotion the book evoked for me is universal and that it will transcend the generations.

This is very powerful writing from a writer with such mastery of his craft that the reader becomes wholly absorbed in the tragedy, and that, despite my initial reservations, is a tribute to it.

The SMH reviewed Time’s Long Ruin, and you can read the Miles Franklin judge’s background info here. I also liked the  review by David Whish-Wilton.

[1] Orr has changed the date and the names of the people involved, as well as many other details.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Time’s Long Ruin
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2010
ISBN: 9781862548305
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press
Availability: At Fishpond, click on  this link: Time’s Long Ruin
There is also an ebook at Readings and a special offer at Wakefield Press.


Responses

  1. […] Time’s Long Ruin (2009), longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and winner of the National Year of Reading Award; and […]

  2. I have just finished reading Time’s Long Ruin. Not a book that I would have picked up from the bookshelves but the joy of belonging to a book club that takes one out of ones reading comfort zone.

    I loved this book. I was raised in the UK however now have many friends who were raised or who have lived in the Western Suburbs of Adelaide. They will all be getting a copy for Christmas (those who still like to hold a book in their hands).

    I loved the characters, especially Janice. I felt the pain of making the right decisions for children as sometimes I was also found wanting in this. I could smell the summer and heat and the need to escape to the beach. Frankly I could go on forever but expressing myself, unlike my new hero Stephen Orr, is not my forte. As an retired teacher I thank goodness it is yours and I am so grateful that you are an educator – how lucky are your students.

    Thankyou for sharing your remarkable gift Stephen even though you are not getting rich.

    • Hello Ann, I am so pleased to ‘meet’ another enthusiast for this exceptional author. Stephen has written more books since this one so there are more treats in store:)
      Thank you for taking the time to comment, best wishes, Lisa


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