Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2014

Lost River, four albums, by Simone Lazaroo

20862994I’ve read two novels by Simone Lazaroo: The Travel Writer (2006), and Sustenance (2010) but Lost River, four albums is a departure from her previous sensuous style.  Sustenance in particular was a celebration of colour, texture and aroma, but this new novel has a more sobering palette.

It’s appropriate, considering its subject matter.  The ironically named Ruth Joiner (who is very much the outsider) has terminal cancer.  She is a single mother of a twelve-year-old daughter, and she has no family other than the judgemental missionary couple who adopted her from a Balinese orphanage.  She ran away from them when she was seventeen.  She doesn’t miss these absent parents at all.

But the damage Grace and Fred Joiner have done to her identity and to her sense of self-esteem is profound.  When the novel opens we learn that David – the man with whom she had a fleeting relationship when she was at her most vulnerable – had left her, telling her that he would be gone just a short while.  Her daughter Dewi – not yet aware of the seriousness of her mother’s condition – wants to know more about him.  Ruth conceives the idea of using four photo albums salvaged from the Op Shop where she works, with the few photos she has, as a record for her daughter.

The four albums, annotated with (sometimes enigmatic) quotations from an ‘Oriental Wisdom 1976 Pocket Diary’ act as a framing device.   As Ruth places photos in the albums, coloured grey, blue, green and white, the novel shifts backwards and forwards to Ruth’s impending death and her memories.  So we learn about her disagreeable adoptive parents, who thought her Balinese culture so worthless that they did not bother to keep a record of the four names bestowed by her mother.  We learn that her only friend on the mission was an Aboriginal woman called Nelly, who suggests that perhaps Grace is ‘too strict …they prob’ly shamed bout something they done themselves.’

How do you know?

‘Had too much shame, too.’ Nelly put her hands over her face, spoke through the gaps between her fingers.  ‘A white man made me pregnant when I was just a bit older than you.  I had my little baby boy lo-ong time ago, before Joiners came here.’ She lowered her hands slowly, wiping her broad cheeks.  ‘the old missionaries sent my baby to a home in the city for half-caste children, they callem.  Sent me to work here. Treat me like rubbish.  I never saw my baby again.  Anyone try to make you feel like rubbish, don’t be shame like I was.  Too long I felt shame.’ (p. 103)

But Ruth’s life is blighted by poverty, and poverty brings shame.  She welcomes few people into the crumbling house that she rents from David’s brother Luke, and her daughter doesn’t bring friends home.  Exploited at the Op Shop as one of the ‘losers’ by her employer Eloise, Ruth dresses Dewi in cast-offs.  Her efforts to supplement her income by selling home-made rag rugs and B&W postcards made from prints of David’s photos don’t help much.  Her few friends are ‘rough diamonds’ with issues of their own, and Luke, Dewi’s uncle, is busy with his own life.  It is, however, his remorseful return of her rent money that enables her to visit Bali, and there is a kind of redemption for Luke towards the end of Ruth’s life.

I found some of the representation of middle-class characters unsatisfactory, too predictably judgemental.  There are attempts at support from social welfare services – but these are rejected because Ruth has absorbed the message that The Welfare will take her child away, so the reader never gets to see if these social workers might have had some redeeming features.  (There are three ‘stolen’ children in this novel: Nelly’s, Katy’s and Roberta’s). Dewi’s teacher is insensitive, the real estate agent is grasping, the council inspector is overbearing, and gossips in the supermarket sneer audibly.  I was a bit uneasy about the portrayal of the Aboriginal woman Katy helping herself to goods in the Op Shop too.  She wasn’t the only one who did this, and Eloise the manager is the most blatant of the thieves, but still, in the absence of any positive portrayals of Aborigines in the novel (unless you count the way they dispense wisdom) I felt that this representation of Katy contributes to an unfortunate stereotype.

Lost River is more of a meditation on grief and loss, loneliness and rejection than a plot-driven novel.  Like The Travel Writer a mother-and-daughter relationship and a cross-cultural identity is central, but the colours of this novel are bleached away.  Like the rag rugs Ruth weaves on her home-made loom, there are few ‘running veins of vivid colour amongst the more faded’.  (p. 112)  Almost all the characters are damaged in some way, and the repercussions cross the generations.  One is left hoping that Dewi, a spirited, blithe creature most of the time, will have a more positive future, but I suspect that few readers will feel confident about that.

The beauty of this novel lies in its portrayal of courage in adversity, the strength of the mother-and-daughter relationship and the gradual way the gentle courtship of David and Ruth is revealed.   But it left me with an overwhelming feeling of sadness.

PS Check out Claire Scobie’s review at the SMH (paywall permitting) and Ashleigh Meikle’s at the NSW Writers’ Centre.  (She calls it a novella, but it’s not, it’s nearly 300 pages long).

Author: Simone Lazaroo
Title: Lost River, four albums
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press) 2014
ISBN: 9781742585390
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP

Availability
Fishpond: Lost River: Four Albums


Responses

  1. I have put forward your name and blog on my page as a Most Inspiring Blogger. If you wish to participate I’m sure people would enjoy it. You really are a good inspiration and all a good blogger should be.
    Pam (Travellin’ Penguin)

    • Oh my, *blush* that’s very kind of you!
      I shall have to have a think about the Seven Things…

  2. Great review Lisa. I can’t decide whether I would like this one or not. I don’t think I’m up for “sad” at the moment so I might bypass it for now.

    • I know what you mean, you have to be in the right frame of mind for books of a certain mood.

  3. I found this novel incredibly moving. I enjoyed the subtlety employed in the portrayal of the impact of a cold, dogmatic mission childhood. As with good books, there was much left unstated. Unlike the reviewer above, I found the heroism of the main character gave rise to more hope than despair. There is much realism keenly portrayed here, but not cynicism. I would not be too quick to ask for political correctness in the actions of characters, and I did not find Katy’s treatment unsympathetic.
    I also admire the unique structure in which events, feelings and relationships are described as photos are selected for albums of memories.
    I will be reading her other works.

    • I certainly recommend that you do, Carolyn. My favourite is Sustenance, I loved that book:)


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