Bloodlines is a sensual novel, and an homage to a love that transcends the everyday. The debut novel of WA author Nicole Sinclair, it was shortlisted for the 2014 TAG Hungerford Award. That’s an award designed to encourage debut authors with not only some cash but with the all-important publishing contract (with Fremantle Arts Centre Press) and it’s launched the careers of authors reviewed on this blog, such as Brenda Walker (1990), Gail Jones (1991), Simone Lazaroo (1993), Alice Nelson (2006), Natasha Lester (2008), Jacqueline Wright (2010) and Robert Edeson (2012). Wisely, other publishers keep an eye on the shortlisted authors, and Margaret River Press has picked up Bloodlines and added it to their list.
The artwork on the cover is called ‘Scribbly Gum Leaf’ and it’s from a wall installation by Meredith Woolnough. (You can see it here). Created with embroidery thread, this image is a clever allusion to entwined lives and the primacy of the environment that shapes us. Beth is a thirty-one-year-old whose life is in a mess, and for the first time, the loving home environment of her father Clem’s farm in the WA wheatbelt isn’t enough to help her emerge from trauma. She takes what is meant to be a short break with her Aunt Val on a small island in Papua New Guinea, and finds herself immersed in the complexities of a culture very different to her own.
The 3rd person omniscient narration brings shifting perspectives from the present and the not-too-distant past. Loss permeates everything the characters do, but Beth has to learn to transcend it as her father has done with the loss of his much-loved wife Rose, and as Aunt Val has, in adopting a philosophical attitude to lost opportunity and making a satisfying new life as a teacher in PNG. The reader is not told until late in the novel about what has happened to traumatise Beth, only that she can’t come to terms with what happened to Sam, and it also takes a good while before Clem and Val’s losses are explained too. The focus is not so much on the events of the past but rather on their permanence in the psyche of the present, but the narrative tension is maintained by the reader’s desire to find out what had actually happened to Sam, to Rose, and to Aunt Val’s arrested love life.
What lifts this novel out of the all-too-ordinary relationships genre is the setting in PNG. Like most Australians I know very little about our neighbour and former colony, and the only other novels set there that I’ve ever read are Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain (see my review) and Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved (see my review). (Both of which in amazing synchronicity were longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013.) None of these authors exoticised the setting, but rather used it to explore issues of racism, social problems, women’s lives, and the impact of a dominant expat community.
For Beth in Bloodlines the local culture is both supportive and confronting. Her work as a volunteer teacher comes to be valued by the community, and the women give her space to deal with her demons. But she worries about the lack of authentic indigenous teaching materials, and is alarmed by traditional methods to deal with a girl’s badly infected thumb. She’s not oblivious to the impositions of expat culture:
In a bar packed with touristy indigenous exotica, Beth questions her role: is she helping, or is she an interloper?
In every direction she looks, there’s a poster or photograph, a carving or shell. The Last Unknown the poster proclaims. But then she catches herself in the act, feels unbalanced, as if she’s in a museum, peering at all these items poached from the place. In that moment she sees herself: a white woman looking at all these amazing things. Exotic things. And though she lives with the locals and doesn’t stay in resorts, doesn’t do touristy things, it unsettles her: this business of looking. Like teaching Romeo and Juliet at school, she thinks: a white man’s story for a class of black kids. It had given them pleasure, given her pleasure, but was it, in the end, the right thing to do? (p. 126)
More confronting for readers is the local women’s disdain for men and the way one of the husbands represents PNG’s dreadful domestic violence and rape problem. If there is an indigenous male role model in the novel (as there are in Modjeska’s The Mountain) then I missed it, and for me this raises the question of depicting realism in other cultures with well-documented social problems. Is it better to be uncompromising in depicting the problem at the risk of stereotyping, or better to provide a possibly idealised character resisting the local culture? I don’t have an answer to this, and I imagine that book groups might discuss the question at length.
Book groups might also discuss the representation of Australian male expats as racist boors, again in contrast to the women who need to be protected from them. ‘Roo’ in particular since there is no redemption at all for him, is also in stark contrast with Beth’s father Clem who with his grubby fingernails and sweat-stained shirts is a (perhaps just a little-too-good-to-be true) salt-of-the-earth tender loving man without a violent bone in his body:
Pirate knows this about Roo. Like a snake with its head chopped off, Jim had told him, wriggling all over the place, dangerous as hell. Years ago, Jim had thrown a punch at him for some stupid insult and Roo had knocked Jim to the ground, reached for a beer bottle and smashed it on the bar. Ever come for me again, Jim Saunders, eyes wild, you’re a dead man. (p. 179)
Clem cuts the engine and turns to her. He slides along the bench seat and cups her chin in both hands. His calloused fingers brush her skin, and he bends to kiss her softly, just once.
‘Thanks for coming out tonight, Rose,’ he murmurs.
‘You can come in,’ she whispers. ‘Harry and Pat are in the city.’
His breath catches, his blue eyes intense. ‘No,’ he says, ‘No, I better be going home.’
She feels her cheeks burning.
‘Rose,’ he says, ‘You’re the most wonderful girl I’ve ever met. But I won’t rush this.’ He kisses her cheek, looks at her again, then slips back across the seat, undoes the door and walks around to her side of the ute. Opening the door, he reaches for her hand. ‘Plus,’ he says, ‘Dog’s waiting up for me.’ Then his voice lowers, serious now, ‘And if I stay any longer, I know I won’t leave till Sunday.’ (p.64-5)
The contrast in settings is exquisitely rendered:
Home early after it hit fifty degrees in Clarkey’s shed, Clem parks the ute under the big red gum. Dog jumps off and heads straight for a saucepan of water and the shade of a tree. After the blistering heat of the ground, the concrete floor of the laundry cools Clem’s feet. He watches in silence from the door as Rose, bent over the deep trough, scoops a saucepan of water from the milk bucket and slowly, from left to right, pours it over her head. (p. 176)
WA’s searing dry heat and aridity is contrasted with the oppressive humidity of PNG and its lush tropical landscapes. Both locales depict rudimentary comforts but Clem and Rose live in the isolation which can be so fatal in remote Australia while Beth in the women-only compound is never really alone:
Beth wakes early, showers and eats eggs for breakfast. She’s dressed in her best skirt and top, and as she hurries across the grass, glances up to see a teenage girl looking out from the kitchen window. Delilah. Beth waves but feels uneasy, knowing she is being watched as she walks towards the gate. She finds the path at the back of their houses and winds through long grass – shoulder high in places – to the school. She steps carefully on rotting planks, slippery with rain, that cross open drains, then negotiates a food garden encroaching on the path. Beans and tomatoes are staked to bamboo struts with brightly torn strips of fabric. A dog with its left ear red raw from fleas sniffs at her legs, and Beth hurries faster. Suddenly it yelps and vanishes into the jungle on the left. She walks past old basketball courts, the goal ring still standing, the wood from the backboard long gone and the bitumen buckled by tiny eruptions as plants force themselves up and up. It’s only nine in the morning and Beth’s shirt clings to her, sweat pooling between her breasts. (p. 68)
And then there’s the tourists’-eye-view of PNG:
Half an hour later, they arrive at The Lagoon, a resort run by an Australian man and his Japanese wife, both in their fifties. They specialise in dive tours to the extensive coral reefs and shipwrecks, and big wave surfing trips; travellers flock to the island because of the package tours. Beautiful bamboo and leaf bungalows line the bay, their sturdy balconies extending over the green water. When Beth peeks inside she sees Balinese furniture, woven floor rugs and crisp luxurious sheets on the beds, turned down with a yellow orchid on the pillow. The louvres are open to the breeze and salt air, and mosquito nets, giant meringues, puff above the beds. So different from the world she now lives in. (p. 126)
This is the kind of novel I like: the more I reflect on it, the more there is to think about.
Author: Nicole Sinclair
Publisher: Margaret River Press, 2017
Review copy courtesy of Margaret River Press