As anyone reading this blog knows, the advent of book-blogging has been an absolute boon for lovers of literary fiction. As newspaper space for book reviews compresses it gets harder and harder to find out about the books we love and LitBlogs have moved in to fill the gap. On budgets large and small we book-lovers seek out titles we’ve learned about from niche bloggers we trust, and these days we’re all enjoying our reading more because we have recommendations to guide us.
But still, it’s the serendipitous discovery of a new author that brings the greatest pleasure. The sheer delight of reading an exquisite book by an author you’ve never heard of is an unexpected joy. And so it has been with my discovery of A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith, published by UWA Publishing in 2005, shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards, but not given the attention it deserves. I hope I can do it justice with this review…
The story unfolds in four parts, revealing the heart-breaking story of Grace and her parents. A series of personal tragedies, not so very unusual, have impacted these lives – and grief sabotages their relationships. It has made them inarticulate – incapable of expressing their emotions except in eloquent silence. The pain they cause each other is immense, and enduring. For Grace, whose dreams and ambitions of a career in architecture have collapsed, a new relationship with Michael offers a new sense of self, but Michael’s obsession with the stories of ancient astronomers takes him off to remote parts of Egypt. And it’s even harder to communicate by letter than it is face-to-face…
Smith’s writing is exquisite, seductive and powerful. It’s not a page-turner in the usual sense, but the present tense narration gives the novel immediacy and intensity and I could not stop reading until I finished it in the small hours of the morning. Lured by captivating imagery and intimate detail in settings that range in time and place – from contemporary Perth to a village in postwar Bedfordshire and then what seems like a timeless journey across the Nullarbor to Melbourne, I simply had to discover the legacy of silence and secrets that lay at the heart of this novel.
Smith’s mastery of diverse settings is part of what gives this novel authenticity, and there was an added treat for me in the descriptions of my childhood haunts in Balaclava, especially Greenmeadows Gardens which was the park at the end of my street! Even a train journey to the back-blocks of New South Wales is rendered with a painterly eye, but it was the road trip which fascinated me because I have done that trip myself and know its monotony:
She has heard about the way it can hypnotise you, this dark road on which you can drive for one hundred and fifty kilometres without turning the steering wheel. So she searches the horizon to keep herself awake, forcing herself to look at the blown-out tyres and the mangled, bloody corpses of the kangaroos lying in the dirt, which becomes redder and redder the further inland she drives.
When the road trains loom towards her she grips the wheel with both hands, bracing herself against the rush of air as they roar past. The rest of the time she drives with only one hand on the wheel and she waves at every car she passes so she will not feel quite so alone. (p220)
Alone on the endless, featureless road, Grace talks to herself:
Out of habit she talks to Michael too, meandering conversations that she rehearses, line by line until she is word perfect. In the past it has comforted her, recalling the quiet way he listened when she spoke, imagining his responses to her thoughts and feelings. Today when she catches herself she feels guilty, treacherous, as though she has broken a promise. For this is what she is driving away from, what she hoped to leave behind in Perth. She is tired of a life only half lived, of storing her best away for an imagined future that might never unfold.
Yet still the words she wants to say to Michael rise up from inside her: soft and round, they hide beneath her tongue, stick to the roof of her mouth; sharp and small, they catch between her teeth. She feels them, like pebbles or like flints, each with a different texture, a different taste. She finds the weight and shape of each one before she opens her mouth and spits them out of the window, leaves them lying among the animal carcasses on the side of the endless road. (p220)
This is a journey that brings a resolution of sorts, but this is no naïve love story.
Annabel Smith is a young writer of great promise and I’m really looking forward to her next novel which is due out soon. Keep an eye on her website here.
Update 13/7/13: A New Map of the Universe is now available as an eBook. Follow this link.
Author: Annabel Smith
Title: A New Map of the Universe
Publisher: University of Western Australia Press (UWAP), 2005
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library
Or, in Victoria, use ZPortal Search to find one in a library near you or request an inter-library loan. I’m sure other states have something similar.