Stephen Scourfield is an award-winning author, journalist and photographer from Western Australia. His published work covers a diversity of styles and topics and Unaccountable Hours, a collection of three novellas, is his latest foray into fiction. Each story involves strong, assertive characters confronting challenge, each in a distinctively Australian landscape.
The first story,The Luthier, reveals the author’s passion for Australian timbers of great beauty. A luthier is one who makes or repairs lutes or other stringed instruments, a craft not usually associated with Australia. Indeed most of us, even if we love music, could only name the Stradivarius violin, and would most commonly associate violin-making with Italy. So it was with delight that I read the story of Alton Freeman who abandoned a career as a musician to become a noted luthier using beautiful Australian timbers.
The first violin Alton Freeman made was heavy and rustic with a barndancey sort of sound. The varnish was too rosy, the overall look too folksy. The seams looked somehow clunky, though he was happy with the carving of the scroll.
He hung it high on a wall, on a twist of wire, to gather dust and never leave the workshop.
It is a practice run, he tells himself when his eye happens to catch it; an experiment, a first, tentative investigation of the mystery. He can view it as excusable until he thinks of the violins of Cremona, the spiritual shrine and practical home of violin-making, and of its rolling generations of Italian masterpieces. (p38)
A challenge indeed, to experiment with different woods and varnishes, and all without the guiding hand of a mentor as well. His inspiration is an old recording of Monica Erika Grenbaum and his ambition to achieve a perfect sound to match her rendition of Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas. It is a simple story, but satisfying, as Alton copes with family life, disappointments and the isolation of a craftsman whose choice to live and work in the country he loves, means that he works without a supportive community or tradition behind him.
Like Water shows this author’s versatility. It’s a first person narrative featuring a man with a dual identity. In Rome, Matthew Rossi is a sophisticate, relishing the layers of history in the Eternal City. In Western Australia he leads a very simple life, often abandoning his rustic ‘factory’ to drive far into the interior, unfazed by the thought that if he were to run out of petrol he might well die in the isolation of the desert. (If you’ve ever driven in the back-blocks east of Perth with a near-empty tank as I have, you might know that this is not an undertaking to be taken lightly, even on the bitumen. We drove in increasing dismay for hours without seeing another vehicle or building.)
Matthew is a man who takes risks with his own life underwater as well, and one who has alienated himself from other people and aligned himself with the beauty of the Australian environment instead. Into his life comes 70-something Bea, who becomes a circuit-breaker for his self-destructive illusions. This story features some of the most beautiful writing I have come across lately, and the characterisation, especially of Bea, is just brilliant.
Scourfield’s writing is so distinctively Australian, it took me straight back to the trips I’ve made to the west:
As we swing west, we drive into the teeth of saltiness. The herby scent of saltbush thickens under the intensity of sun and dry wind. Out this way, everything is flayed by the elements. There is no getting away from them; nowhere to hide. Anything that happens beyond those elements happens by luck, or surreptitiously.
The servo and store sits cream-bricked, squat and hammered by light and advertising. Drumsticks. Mrs Macs. The Cows Are in Town: Choc Milk. The West Australian. Signs flap and spin in the wind, or lean, beaten, against the wall and their type loses colour even as you watch. Everything winds up a washed-out sepia out here. Everything seems spattered by rust and battered by the wind. The mortar is gouged by the honking sea breeze and turns to a white talcum sand.
T-shirts and teaspoons, Cervantes stubby holders in three shades of neoprene, roadkill warming in the hot cabinet, mixed lollies in paperbags, white bread. I’ll get some milk from the fridge, says Bea, deciding which type she wants before she opens the door. Do you mind low-fat?
And I’ll get some salady things and make up some lunch myself.
They’ve got stuff in the cabinet, if that’s easier.
I don’t mind, she says, politely. I think it would be best. And in looking up at the blackboard, I get a sneak preview of the kitchen, and the cook, and agree. (p186-7)
I like Scourfield’s writing so much that I am saving the third story, Ethical Man, for later. You know how sometimes you get a run of books that just don’t work for you, and you want to be sure that the next one is going to be great? I save up my Kate Grenvilles, my Alex Millers, my Patrick Whites (so few left of those, alas) my Marion Halligans and my David Maloufs in this way, and Stephen Scourfield has just joined the list.
This author is a Miles Franklin contender. I hope he writes a full length novel soon!
Author: Stephen Scourfield
Title: Unaccountable Hours
Publisher: UWA (University of Western Australia) Publishing) 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP.