Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 6, 2019

The Year of the Beast (Glenroy Series), by Steven Carroll

This gorgeous novel is the final title in Steven Carroll’s award-winning Glenroy series.  The series, set in the Melbourne suburb of Glenroy, began with the story of Vic, his wife Rita, and their only son Michael in The Art of the Engine Driver (2001), and continued with The Gift Of Speed (2004), The Time We Have Taken (2007), Spirit of Progress (2011), and Forever Young (2015). Now, going back in time to the origins of the family we have The Year of the Beast (2019).

The story begins with Maryanne walking in the streets of Melbourne.  She is forty years old, unmarried and seven months pregnant with the child who will become Vic the engine driver.  It is 1917 and the second conscription referendum is in full swing.  Carroll, evoking recent memories of the divisive Marriage Equality plebiscite, notes correctly that this so-called referendum was actually a plebiscite, but, checking this, I found that it’s not just popular history that has it wrong by referring to it as a referendum:

All of the historical documentation refer to the ballot as a referendum, even though it did not involve a proposal to amend the Australian Constitution. Because it was not an amendment to the constitution, it had no legal force, it did not require approval in a majority of states and residents of federal territories were able to vote.  Such a ballot is now usually referred to as a plebiscite to distinguish it from a referendum to alter the Constitution. (Wikipedia, viewed 6/2/19)

This distinction points to a significant aspect of the story: a plebiscite, as a powerful indication of the people’s will, evokes passion in a way that never happens with Australian referenda to amend our uninspiring and bureaucratic constitution.  As the blurb says:

Melbourne, 1917: the times are tumultuous, the city is in the grip of a kind of madness. The Great War is raging, and it is the time of the hotly contested second conscription referendum. Fights are raging on the streets, rallies for ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ facing off against each other on opposing corners. Men, women and children, jostling, brawling, fighting and spitting.

Maryanne, on the edge of the crowd, perceives the maelstrom as a beast, a terrible world for her baby to be born into:

She has just stepped off her tram and is moving slowly, labouring towards the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke streets.  The centre of the city on a grey spring day: late afternoon, slipping into twilight.  Spring! Ratty spring.  She pauses before the intersection.  Her heart sinks.  Normally thick with carriages, trams and the occasional motor car, it is now thick with people.  Clouds in the sky swirl; on the ground the crowd sways.  This way and that: a single organism, with thousands of arms, legs and eyes, emitting a continuous hum.  A giant thing.  A beast. All those faces, eyes, mouths, hats, ears, arms and legs surrendering themselves to this thing they have become.  This mass.  This agglomeration, now still, now swaying, and all the time emitting a continuous hum and occasionally erupting into a roar as if the beast were suddenly stirred for action.  Or wounded.  A groan that subsides into a hum, then erupts into a roar.

It is as if some fantastic metamorphosis is taking place in front of her.  And a storybook beast is coming to life before her eyes. As if each of those faces has reached into the depths of its darkness and brought forth the beast that lurks there. Always lurks there, waiting patiently.  Sometimes years, sometimes centuries.  But always there.  And now, its hour come, the beast roars, groans and writhes into life.  The very worst of humanity has risen and become this collective thing to which each of those massed faces gives the gift of its darkness, so that the beast may slouch into life and the world hear its groans.  For it has waited a long time, brooding in its cave, alone and forgotten, but always there.  And now, its moment come, the world will pay. (p.4)

This excerpt is a good example of Carroll’s style.  Rhythmic, pulsing and richly evocative of its beast metaphor, repeating some elements to give them added force and solidity, and revealing the thoughts of the usually reticent main character.  This is the Yes crowd, demanding more young men for the death factory.  Maryanne has other priorities in her life right now, but she is appalled by what she sees, especially when she sees a peaceful women’s demonstration for the No vote being manhandled by vicious police.

The back story reveals Maryanne’s almost accidental career as a teacher in a small town, and the character of the man whose baby she carries.  This is not a plot-driven novel, but there is enough narrative tension to propel it along.  Maryanne is being pressured to hand over her unborn baby to the nuns for a likely vocation in the priesthood, and she needs the support of her fiercely independent but still religious sister Katherine.  (Who is one of the best, most dynamic characters in the whole Glenroy series.  A character like those indomitable women in the novels of Kylie Tennant, she doesn’t cave in to what others expect of her, and I want her to have a novel of her own!)  Looking ahead to the man that the baby will become, Maryanne also wants her child to know that he did have a father even though his behaviour makes him a despicable man that she doesn’t want in her life.

A small gripe: Early in the story, Maryanne tells Katherine that she has been to a suffragette meeting.

‘I get restless.  Confined. I have to get up and go out or I feel like I’ll go mad. I have to go … somewhere.  And today I went to a suffragette meeting.  Oh, they don’t go around calling themselves that.  What do they call themselves?  Women’s Peace Army? I think that’s it…’ (p.59)

No, Maryanne hasn’t been to a suffragette meeting. The Suffragettes were on the other side of the world in London.  What the author means is a suffragist meeting, and a one-word Google search would have told him and his editor so.  This isn’t a mere matter of semantics: suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods to gain votes for women, while the Suffragettes in the UK used direct, militant methods.  (See here). The distinction needs to be made because the Women’s Peace Army, using the suffragist colours of purple, white and green and led in Melbourne by Vida Goldstein, (characterised in the novel as Vera),  was committed to peace and peaceful campaign methods.  They sang songs and distributed pamphlets.  They were never militant.

The book cover? Hmm, it’s not one of the Harper Collins Design Studio’s finest.  It’s a variation on the naked-back-of-a-woman cliché, the red hair presumably meant to be shorthand for ‘Irishwoman’ because the central character has a Roman Catholic background.   This design is misleading, because the image of the crowd from Getty stock images makes it look as if she is the focus of their attention, as if she might be addressing them, when she’s not.  Steven Carroll deserves much better than this for his books and it’s not the first time I’ve thought so.

So don’t be misled by the cover.  This is a wonderful book, richly evocative of its time and with unforgettable characters.  I haven’t found many other reviews yet, but there is this one from Readings.

Update 12/3/18 Jennifer Cameron-Smith reviewed it at Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large. 

Image credits:

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: The Year of the Beast
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2019, 305 pages
ISBN: 05943605
Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins


Responses

  1. Why have I never heard of these novels?

    Like

    • LOL You might be too young! His last few books that I’ve reviewed have been his TS Eliot series:)

      Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: