Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2014

The Betrayal (1999), by Liam Davison

3636431 The Betrayal is the last of Liam Davison’s four novels, and I was expecting it to be the best but I was a bit disappointed by it.  Like his other novels it is grounded in the concept of what Maria Tumarkin calls Traumascapes,  but character seems more important in this book and the novel doesn’t have that powerful sense of an Australian past permeating the present that worked so well in The White Woman and Soundings, and in The Velodrome to a lesser extent.

The Betrayal centres on a character called Judith Maloney, and she’s as dreary as her name.  She is preoccupied by the past, and it seems to have expressed itself in chronic pain, for which she seeks treatment from a charismatic quack at a spa in country Victoria.  (Based, I suspect, on Hepburn Springs, but none too flattering about its waters!) Here she vacillates between doubts about the quackery and submitting to the empathetic charm of ‘Dr’ Menadue, with a letter from her estranged daughter Louise acting as a catalyst for her to start sorting herself out.

The reasons for Judith’s misery are not entirely convincing.  In a village in France in 1967, she witnesses the aftermath of a crime.  Traumatised by this, she comes back to Australia and marries Alan, a prosaic real estate agent and developer.  She despises his occupation in a seventies anti-development kind of way, making sarcastic remarks to the friends and potential clients that flock around him and taking grim delight when a section of the bluff near his development plans falls off into the sea.   She doesn’t conceal her disdain.

He erected the first of the period homes to go up along the beach – a colonial reproduction with verandahs and authentic fittings.  Everything about it was clean and new.  It wasn’t the idea of the past he disliked as much as the age of things that had been there.  Before long, the whole of Cairo Road was studded with period reproductions – colonial homes, Victorian cottages, Edwardian, Georgian, a neo-classic mansion, a French chateau in miniature – each of them authentic in its own fabricated way.  Each of them built without regard for what stood beside it.  It was like a dislocated theme park, Judith thought.  She was appalled by it.  She half-expected her neighbours to appear in costume at their doors.

‘Why would you want to build a house like this?’ she asked him.

But she could see it wasn’t just the house.  It was heritage colours and picket fences.  It was David Austin roses.

‘It’s living history,’ he said.  ‘People feel comforted by the past.’

‘As long as it’s new,’ she said. (p.85)

The marriage also has to contend with her mysterious pain:

Judith could not have told Alan’s acquaintances where her pain had come from, even if she had wanted.  She was reluctant even to refer to it as pain.  Discomfort perhaps, though at times not even that.  It was more a guarded vulnerability with which she lived, as though she were always on the verge of pain.  The potential for it hummed about her.  At times she brushed against it or stroked it with her fingers, just to reassure herself that it was there.  And it always was.  Anything spontaneous, she knew, would push her into it – a misplaced foot, a momentary lapse in concentration, a sudden jerking of the head – and it would claim her.  She would be dragged to a place that was already part of her.  And she would hurt.

It had started before she met Alan.  Something had tightened inside of her when she had returned from France.  She had felt her hips and shoulders slowly draw towards each other, as though she were closing like a trap. It will pass, she had thought.  Each morning she bent against it, prising her body open to face the day.  But it didn’t pass. It stayed. Despite the dull resistance she offered it at first, it would not leave.  It was part of her  –  something buried that would hump towards the surface each day as if to day Remember. Remember.  And she could not forget, no matter how hard she tried.  (p. 86)

The mutual contempt of a toxic marriage expresses itself in insults. He cracks vindictive jokes about her pain, as if it were an interloper that must be fed and made comfortable.  He labels her St Jude and suggests that her pain is her penance for marrying him.  But she refuses to acknowledge the hurt feelings because it would break some bond between them and reveal a weakness in herself.  So she limps around the house after he’s gone to work, blaming his resentment about her pain and festering contempt for his affairs and scornful jealousy about his self-confidence.  This tedious bitterness may test the patience of some readers; it certainly tested mine.

When Alan has had enough, he leaves, their twelve-year-old daughter Louise going willingly with him.  And although the author has built a convincing portrait of a neurotic woman obsessed by her own inchoate needs, it seems rather odd that this severs all contact between mother and daughter until the arrival of The Letter when Louise is an adult.  There’s no satisfactory explanation for why this should be so.

What is gradually revealed is the trigger that set Judith on her self-destructive path.  So the novel takes us back to Vaucluse on the Côte d’Azur reconstructing the day of the murder of a child at the famous fountain.  On an impulse Judith has travelled there to teach English, boarding with a rather odd woman with singularly repellent culinary experiments and even more disgusting eating habits.  (Davison seems determined to sully France’s reputation for gastronomy with this character!)  Judith becomes intrigued by Paul Leriche, a stall-holder at the local market, a ‘man of mystery’ who seems to attract her and repel her in equal measure.  It is this quasi-relationship that leads to her blundering into a past that is still raw.

1967, when this part of the novel takes place, is only twenty years after World War II.  A war that seems remote and unreal to an Australian girl in her twenties, but still very much within living memory in areas where the German Occupation made itself felt and the Resistance exacted a terrible vengeance after the Germans had gone.  In Vaucluse, the past bleeds into the present but Judith is too preoccupied with her own concerns to read the signs…

Part of the problem with the novel, it seems to me, is that Judith is in need of redemption, but the rapprochement between mother and daughter has nothing to do with the French traumascape, and it feels like an afterthought, a conclusion that doesn’t resolve anything.  But it’s also not clear to me what the author was trying to achieve with this novel.  Having written in The White Woman and Soundings such exquisite novels whose landscapes reveal traumatic events embedded in Australia’s history, Davison seems disconnected from the landscape in France, writing more as a perplexed observer than as an author with a profound understanding of the place where he belongs.

I have been puzzled about why an author of such talent as Davison published no more novels after this one in 1999.  He wrote non-fiction, and short stories, but in the fifteen years before his death in 2014 there was no more long fiction.  Now that I have read The Betrayal I wonder about its reception in the marketplace and whether it perhaps attracted discouraging reviews.  (I can’t find any online).  I also can’t help wondering whether there is an unpublished manuscript amongst his effects…

Liam Davison and his wife Frankie were killed when their plane, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, was shot down over disputed territory in Ukraine, and all lives were lost.  This review is the last in my personal tribute to Davison, an author who I came to know only because of the tragic circumstances of his death.  You can find the rest of my reviews of his fiction oeuvre here.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Liam Davison
Title: The Betrayal
Publisher: Viking (Penguin), 1999
ISBN: 9780670886524
Source: Personal copy purchased from Graygate Books, Millicent, S.A. via AbeBooks

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