Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2011

The Patron Saint of Eels, by Gregory Day

Ron McCoy's Sea of DiamondsThe Grand HotelThe recent announcement that Gregory Day was joint winner with Carrie Tiffany of the inaugural ABR Elizabeth Jolley short story prize reminded me that I have not one but three books by Day and that it was high time I read one of them!  I decided to start with his debut novel The Patron Saint of Eels, which is a slim book of only 181 pages but it is highly regarded.   The novel won the ALS Gold Medal in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best First Book, in the same year.    There are also enthusiastic reviews at Great Stories;  two at The Age, one by Lisa Gorton and the other by Michelle Griffin; and an interview by Ramona Koval at the Radio National Books and Writing website, so it seemed like a good choice to begin with.   I shall get round to Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds (which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in 2008) and The Grand Hotel in due course.
Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living
(BTW I read Carrie Tiffany’s enchanting novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living when it first came out, and as far as I know she hasn’t had another novel published or that would be on my TBR as well.  Everyman’s Rules won the WA Premier’s Award and the Dobbie Award in 2007, and was shortlisted for the The Guardian’s First Book Award, the Orange Prize, the Miles Franklin,  and the Victorian Premier’s Vance Palmer Award for Fiction.  Everyone I know loved it, so it is good to know that she is still writing and we live in hope that there will be another book soon!)

The Patron Saint of EelsAnyway, The Patron Saint of Eels is a whimsical tale with a strong environmental focus.  The central character, Noel Lea, is an occasional artist who went away to Melbourne to study but came back home to live contentedly in the (fictional) small town of Mangowak in Western Victoria.  (He has an itinerant ‘day’ job as a landscape gardener, to bring in the ‘dosh’). He lies peacefully meditating one night in the barn when he is disturbed by the eerie sound of something slushing around outside in the rain – and it turns out to be that the local lake has overflowed in the teeming rain and deposited hundreds of eels in the ditches and gutters.  (I don’t know about you, but the thought of this makes my flesh crawl!)

But country folk are made of sterner stuff than me and this phenomenon brings the small community out with their buckets, to take advantage of the bounty.  And Noel takes a couple to his old friend Nanette who lives alone in the bush and spends most of her time up in a decommissioned CFA fire tower.  These two friends share a distaste for development that’s occurring in the nearby town because they would like their bush retreats to stay the way they are, but Nan’s solitary habits are turning her into a recluse and Noel is a bit worried about that.

Now, I don’t know enough about the habits of eels to know if this phenomenon is a bit of magic realism, but the arrival of Fra Ionio certainly is.  He’s a sort of horse-whisperer for unhappy eels, and as their patron saint, he pops down from heaven every now and again to make sure that all is well.  Fra Ionio’s heaven doesn’t sound like much of a paradise to me, because for a start there is no chocolate there, and secondly there are rules which require him to hang around for 24 hours on earth after he’s done his bit looking after the eels.  So it sounds as if there’s just as much arbitrary rule-making in the afterlife as there is in the mortal coil.

Anyway, 24 hours seclusion with Nan and Noel provides the opportunity for all sorts of homespun philosophy, mainly to do with savouring life for what it is and trusting nature to bring joy and meaning into it.   Day also has a go at tourists and interlopers from the city who don’t appreciate the bush properly.   He mocks the fancy names that chefs use to describe the meals they cook, and paints nostalgic portraits of country life in the old days before flashy developments and council rates being used for road signs that warn about upcoming road signs.  What saves this message from becoming a homily is the earthiness of the monk with his beanie and sneakers, and the laconic humour of the author who juxtaposes the spiritual with the mundane.  The story celebrates small-town life in Australia with the pub as its centre and a quirky set of characters – one of whom, Ron McCoy was destined to feature in Day’s second novel.

It’s a gentle book, but there’s a terrible loneliness underlying it.  The impression is of a divided community with little hope of resolution for anyone other than resilient individuals with the fortitude to reassess their attitudes.   The town’s inhabitants are divided into ‘people of the water’ (surfies) and ‘people of the bush’; then there are also those pro-development and those who scrawl ‘tourism stinks’ in protest.  And for all the raucous laughter in the pub and convivial smoking (ugh!) and boozing, the named characters need a saint to connect them.  Mostly they live alone and unsupported by each other.  The town notes Ron McCoy ‘losing it a bit’ but no one does anything to help him.  Surprisingly, (given the reputation of ‘everyone knowing your business’ in small towns), these characters don’t know much about each other either.  Their relationships are fraught and Nan is especially fragile: she is estranged from her children, and ashamed of her family history.  Lured out of her isolation, she reacts by drinking to unpleasant excess and remains stoically sceptical of Fra Ionio and his message.  It’s not clear what will become of her.

It’s an interesting debut novel, part-meditation, part fable.  It will be interesting to see what becomes of Ron McCoy in Day’s second book.

Author: Gregory Day
Title: The Patron Saint of Eels
Publisher: Picador 2005
ISBN: 9780330421584
Source Personal library, purchased from Readings $22.95

Availability:
Fishpond: The Patron Saint of Eels


Responses

  1. that is a great book title Lisa ,not sure if is my type of book thou although it has some appealing parts to it by the sounds of it ,all the best stu

  2. I love the title too and I am a fan of the novella so I’d best put this on my TBR list which, since I have been following your blog, just keeps getting bigger.
    I have enormous respect for the short story so I’m really looking forward to reading both Day’s and Tiffany’s winning entries (although not without a twinge of envy, I confess).

  3. […] Moth Sea Fog by Gregory Day, author of The Patron Saint of Eels, see my review […]


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