Wood Green has been sitting in my pile for a couple of months, but I didn’t pay it much attention until it was shortlisted for the 2016 Readings Prize last week. It’s such an unassuming book with its moody cover and bland title, and the blurb doesn’t give away much either.
Michael, an aspiring writer who has recently finished his PhD, takes a job as the secretary to his literary hero, Lucian Clarke, a reclusive novelist with a mysterious cosmopolitan past, who lives in a cottage in a village on a mountain outside Hobart which gives the book its title, Wood Green.
Peopled by an ensemble cast, the local publican, the single mother who manages the pub’s kitchen, the unhappily married couple that runs the corner store, a newcomer from Johannesburg with a murky past, a snivelling B&B proprietor and a determined ex-girlfriend.
Wood Green artfully evokes the claustrophobia of small-town life. While Michael believes he is making a new life for himself, Lucian has other plans.
Rabin writes with wit and intelligence – and deftly executes an unsuspected plot twist – in his exploration of the perils of literary ambition and the elusive prospect of artistic legacy.
It sounds good, it promises an interesting tale, but it doesn’t demand to be read today, if you know what I mean… But do not be deceived, Wood Green is so much more than it appears to be!
Actually, it was like balm for the soul after reading that sleazy novel I read a book or so ago. Sean Rabin hails from Sydney but he was born in Tasmania and he writes with genuine affection about his fictional village on the slopes of Mt Wellington. (LOL you can tell he’s from Sydney now, his characters notice the cold so much!) That’s not to say that his characters are all virtuous, indeed no. There’s a lot of weed being smoked, and there are interesting mushrooms growing on the mountain. And despite the small population, people seem to be able to enjoy mix-and-match relationships anyway.
In this microcosm of society Rabin has created a fascinating collection of characters who draw the reader into their affairs much like the way it happens in very small towns. But my favourite of the cast was from Hobart: Andrew Tiller, proprietor of the B&B in Battery Point where Michael stays.
Like a bat, Andrew Tiller used the sound of his own voice to navigate and understand the world he lived in. Just walking upstairs to the room Michael rented required at least a hum, if not a whistle. And should a member of staff have crossed his path then all manner of longwinded instructions would have issued forth irrespective of whether they were necessary or not. The times he changed bed sheets Andrew spoke out loud the mantra for tucking hospital corners that his mother had taught him as a boy. During breakfast he liked to repeat everyone’s order verbatim as he delivered dishes to their tables. And checking in a new guest sparked an entire routine about Battery Point: the history of the house; how long it had been in Andrew’s family; the day’s weather forecast; the likelihood of it coming true; tourism services; when breakfast was served; the rules against smoking, having parties, smoking, leaning out windows, smoking, slamming doors, water conservation, wiping your feet, and how it was not necessary to tip for service as everything had been factored into the price of the room. (p. 83)
I swear I have stayed in that B&B!
Despite its proximity to Hobart the Tasmanian bush is all around Wood Green.
Michael shouldered the knapsack and followed Lucian through the trees. For the first hour he stayed close behind, stepping where Lucian stepped while trying to ignore all fear of snakes, spiders, getting lost, and widow-making branches silently falling on top of his head. But during the second hour the distance between the two ramblers widened, as Michael felt himself relax and became accustomed to the dank organic reek of decomposing leaves and bark that had fallen during the summer. Some trees were so tall that he almost lost his balance as he leaned back to appreciate their height. And so wide that whenever Lucian’s red shirt disappeared behind one he would listen for the old man’s footsteps amongst the rustle of marsupials scurrying in the thick undergrowth, and the squawk of birds warning of approaching marauders.
Though Michael had been wearing his new boots for more than a week their stiff leather began to cut into the back of his ankles. His thighs also ached, his breath was proving difficult to catch, and after he had looked down the mountainside to estimate how far they had walked, he turned around and realised that Lucian had vanished. (p. 98)
Not since I read Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath have I been so conscious of how risky the Tasmanian bush can be when flawed human beings invade it.
But what I really liked was the cunning with which Rabin has constructed the story. The reader is seduced into shifting perspectives about both Michael and Lucian as they negotiate the arrangement they have with each other. At first Lucian is very much in charge: the successful author lording it over the aspirational one, barking orders and not open to question about anything even when his demands are unreasonable. The reason for this dawns on the reader before it dawns on the unsuspecting Michael, but in one of the cleverest plot twists I’ve come across, the reader and Michael turn out to be completely wrong.
I closed the book with a feeling of great satisfaction at having been hoodwinked, and then opened it again to browse through and admire the mastery with which it was done. Like a great author before him (#NoName,NoSpoiler!), Rabin has exposed ambition and arrogance in a splendid denouement, leaving the reader with much to think about.
Author: Sean Rabin
Title: Wood Green
Publisher: Giramondo, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo.