Salamanders – famously used in literature as the symbol of the Fire Department in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – are fascinating little creatures.
According to Wikipedia:
In literature and legend, the salamander is associated with fire, being supposedly unharmed by the flames, while clothes made from its skins or ‘wool’ were believed to be incombustible. More plausibly, salamanders were said to be intensely poisonous. Despite this, salamander brandy, a drink prepared by dunking live salamanders in fermenting fruit juices, is reputed to have hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac properties. The salamander’s ability to regenerate lost body parts is being investigated and research is ongoing into any applications this may have for human medicine.
Australian author William Lane has used elements of this profile in his latest novel, teasing the reader with all kinds of strange allusions to it.
For a start, from chapter one, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his characters are poisonous to one another. A holiday on the Hawkesbury River becomes the holiday from hell when the narcissistic artist Peregrine creates havoc for all and sundry. And sundry they are: Lane has assembled a large and messy blended family that has no choice but to revolve around Peregrine because he is so totally absorbed in his art. It’s no accident that he’s called Peregrine: it’s a name derived from Peregrinus meaning foreigner or stranger and a peregrine falcon is also a opportunistic hunter. Peregrine is certainly a stranger to his family and certainly also opportunistic with women.
There are a lot of characters to come to grips with in chapter one. From Peregrine’s failed artists’ colony in Somerset, come friends Elizabeth and Johnno; Peregrine’s ex-wife Naomi and her daughters Rosie and Julia; and his sons by Ottiline (with whom he has a toxic relationship after divorce), David, Arthur and George. Friends Ernie and Valentine were there, but have left because they couldn’t stand Dad, and Rodney and Virginia and their daughter Minnie arrive but leave in disgust almost immediately because of his sordid behaviour. This tumult of ill-assorted people results in a cataclysmic disruption that severs the family for decades.
Twenty years later, Rosie and Arthur meet again at the old place to try to resolve their demons. As in Lane’s previous novel Over the Water (see my review) the central character is a young man who is emotionally unready for relationships. By now Arthur is father to a baby called Violet but his girlfriend Lily had ditched him before the baby was born, and he has had nothing to do with the child. He feels mildly guilty about this, but (unsurprisingly given the role model he’s had) his eventual attempts to be a parent are clumsy and futile. Rosie, on the other hand, has returned from a soul destroying job in England but is trying to be an artist. She seems to have some kind of eating disorder because she refuses all food and drink, and is equally incapable of having a normal relationship. Arthur is attracted to her – always was, even when just a teenager – so it’s just as well that she is Naomi’s adopted daughter and not Arthur’s biological step-sister…
Sydney was ringed by bushfire when Rosie’s plane landed, and as they set off on a road trip together, Rosie dismisses the threat to their safety by remarking facetiously that they are salamanders so they don’t feel fire. This road trip, however, has some plot elements that didn’t seem thematically linked: two hitchhikers, one of whom resembles Arthur and uses his passport to return to England, and a visit to some neglected rock art with an Aboriginal guide called Chester. Rosie then makes an abrupt departure for England and there is a rather limp interlude in a mining town where Arthur has a tentative relationship with another woman called Rosie. (Why the same name??)
The salamander symbolism returns when Arthur has some hallucinogenic experiences after he is bitten by a snake, and the salamander’s regenerative powers are also invoked when his damaged eyesight is restored as well.
It’s not so clear whether these salamanders can regenerate damaged relationships. The story moves to England when Arthur feels impelled to see his father again, but Peregrine is still the same: not drinking quite so much, but still wholly absorbed in creating his strange artworks in out-of-the-way places and not at all interested in his offspring or their lives. Julia feels optimistic about restoring some kind of family life, but she’s not privy to the secret of Rosie and Arthur’s semi-incestuous relationship. Although Arthur finds his English accent reasserting itself, nothing seems resolved by the end of the story.
The blurb says that at heart The Salamanders is a love story but to me, these characters all seemed incapable of love because they are in thrall to art. The creative impulse, whether expressed in Peregrine’s controversial paintings or Arthur’s would-be novel about a character called Verdigris, is depicted as destructive, especially by Julie who screams hysterically when little George takes up drawing, obsessively searching for more and more paper and neglecting to play with her any more. Arthur burns his MS, signalling that writing can’t be part of his life any more, but can a creative impulse be stifled like that? And should it?
The cover design by Peter Lo is exquisite – an absolutely apt!
Author: William Lane
Title: The Salamanders
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.
*Attribution for the image of the fire salamander: By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18182805