Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2019

Driving into the Sun, by Marcella Polain

I’m not fond of novels written from a child’s limited perspective  … but when well done, they can transport the reader back to childhood in a most compelling way.  In Marcella Polain’s new novel Driving into the Sun, the suburbs of Perth in 1968 are the backdrop for disputing the nostalgia of the ‘good old days’, and most of it is told from pre-pubescent Orla’s point-of-view.  But occasionally, that curtain lifts and the reader hears from those that Orla observes so minutely: her idealised father Dan reveals his flaws; her erratic mother Henry (Henrietta) shows us the panic which drives her actions; and we see the bewilderment of her little sister Deebee.

I am indebted to one of my favourite authors Amanda Curtin for my discovery of this author.  In an interview on Amanda’s blog about this book I learned that Marcella has a well-established profile as a poet, as a writer for theatre and the screen, and as an essayist. Her awards include the Calibre Essay Prize (Longlisted 2010); Patricia Hackett Prize (Winner 2005, 2010); the ACT Judith Wright Prize (Shortlisted 2008); the Western Australian Premier’s Poetry Prize (Shortlisted 2000); and the Anne Elder Prize (Winner 1996).  But it was her first novel The Edge of the World (2008) which interested me most: it was shortlisted for the (1987-2011, sorely-missed) Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and I bought a copy for the TBR.  I meant to read it before Driving into the Sun but the library pre-empted that when my reserve came in almost as soon as the book was released.

As the interview reveals, there are autobiographical elements in this story.  Marcella was born in Singapore and arrived in Perth as an immigrant, at the age of two, with her Armenian mother and Irish father.  In the novel, Perth is home for Orla, but she is aware of the displacement felt by her immigrant parents.  The fractured style of the narrative means that the reader must piece fragments together to form a coherent whole, and although I haven’t read Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing it is obviously an influence because the epigraph signals not only the style but also a major preoccupation: ‘Thinking I think of you and me. Our empty spaces where fathers should be.’

Orla and Deebee are both bewildered by their parents’ turbulent marriage.  Readers have to work out for themselves whether Father is weak and placatory or one who exercises his power by ignoring his wife’s frustrated rages and ensuring that the children’s love him best.  But from Orla’s point-of-view he is their refuge.  She is not like Deebee who is light-hearted and cheerful; she is an introvert, an isolate at school, and terrified of the consequences of not being ‘good’.  She is more quiet, and more preoccupied with being obedient, than seems healthy for a child of her age.  It is self-protective behaviour against inchoate fears, and tragically, she blames herself when her father dies, for not being good enough.

Her parents, who met in the Middle East, have had traumatic experiences.  He conforms to Irish stereotype and drinks too much; her anxiety paralyses her capacity to enjoy the relaxed lifestyle of her neighbours and she catastrophises everything she perceives as a hazard.  (If you know the history of the 1915 Armenian genocide in which Turkey obliterated a country and sought to destroy its culture, you know that these fears are well-founded.  This event was in living memory in 1968 when the book is set; and chez moi we have a friend whose parents and grandparents hold the atrocity in intergenerational memory).  Having lost so much, Mother does not cope well with the sudden death of her husband and their reduced circumstances, and support is inadequate.  She learns how vulnerable single women are when police are dismissive of her reports about a prowler.

For Orla, a Perth childhood is not a benign place of safety.  The fractured style and the limited perspective vividly conjure the way the child’s mind can’t fully comprehend what’s going on, and every word counts.  In this paragraph, if Saturday was bad is freighted with meaning.

If Orla went to Cora’s twice in one weekend, her mother would say ‘You spend more time there than you do with your own family.’ And Orla would feel her cheeks flush, not being able to say what she wanted to say.  So, if Saturday came and things were going well – if her mother wasn’t angry, if Deebee wasn’t annoying – Orla would hold off visiting Cora till Sunday.  But if Saturday was bad, she would make an excuse, wander outside, step over the fence.  Later, when her mother would ask her where she had been and why she hadn’t sought permission, Orla would say she had been in the garden, Cora had invited her in for a cuppa, that she didn’t think her mother would mind – she didn’t mind, did she? – she had never minded before.  And her mother would fall silent, give her a look.

It was always better not to ask first.  If she did, she’d have to take Deebee, worry about her sister repeating words like bloody and bugger. (p.140)

The myth that Australia was an egalitarian society is laid bare by the characterisation of the neighbours.  Whatever status the family had while Father was alive, is gone.  A fatherless family is at the bottom of a society built around the nuclear family.  Mother, who had studiously avoided Cora and her large brood of unruly children, is forced to accept her spontaneous help when latchkey arrangements go awry.  But although the children like the happy-go-lucky atmosphere at Cora’s, Mother still persists with Mrs Thompson (never given her first name as Cora is) as childcare for Deebee.  Even though cheerful, resilient Deebee is always in tears every morning when Orla takes her across the road.

The vulnerability of working families in this era is vivid too: the myth of all-powerful unions creating ‘a workers’ paradise’ is shattered as well. Father has been worked to his death and though a lawyer says there is a good case for compensation, there is no money to pursue the matter.

As was common in those days, the children are not taken to the funeral, so Orla does not really believe that her father is dead.  When she finally voices this to her Aunt Harry, it’s because there is talk of moving from her home.  This is an exquisite piece of prose:

Orla looked down at her own hands, curled quietly there in her lap.  She was surprised how easy it was.  ‘When he comes home,’ she whispered, ‘He won’t know where we are.’

After a while Harry said, ‘Oh,’ then reached out and took Orla’s hands. ‘Oh,’ she said again, and she stroked Orla’s thumbs lightly with her own, not looking up, and in the silence Orla felt the warmth of her aunt’s fingers, watched the small movements of her aunt’s thumbs, the soft scrape, skin over skin.  From beyond the window she heard the rustle of the night wind through the poplars.  Harry said, ‘I knew your father a little, met him a few times many years ago.  He seemed, he seemed like a very nice man, and I, I just don’t think he would leave his family, stay away from you and your mother and your sister, the people he loved most in the world and who love him too, so very much, I know, if he could help it.’ She lifted her gaze and met Orla’s.  ‘Do you?’ she continued.  Her eyes glistened.  ‘Do you think he would do that?’ (p.236)

I doubt if anyone can read that and the anguished paragraph which follows as Orla processes this gentle truth, and then Orla’s realisation, without eyes glistening.

A sound came out of her, the long low sound of something falling into a deep hole and finally hitting bottom.  Something she had no idea she had been holding.

This is a novel of great tenderness, and you can sense the author’s tender compassion for her characters as you read.  But it is also a tale of menace imagined and real: the conclusion is monstrous and a foul betrayal.  But though it is shocking, the author does not labour over it.  The focus of this novel is the child’s world, dealing with an incomprehensible grief and betrayals she does not understand, while at the same time struggling with yearning for childhood dreams of a friend, a horse, and a sense of security.

I am looking forward to reading The Edge of the World.

Author: Marcella Polain
Title: Driving Into the Sun
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2019, 306 pages
ISBN: 9781925591996
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Driving into the Sun or direct from Fremantle Press ($29.99 AUD) where you can also buy it as an eBook ($12.34 AUD).

 


Responses

  1. Fabulous review, as always, Lisa. Marcella is an extraordinary writer, and I’m so pleased to have brought her to your attention. I think you’ll be riveted by The Edge of the World, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Amanda, I’m sending another bouquet to your blog as a great source of news about WA writing!

      Like

  2. I’m like you when it comes to child narrators so if you liked this, I’d say it’s definitely worth the read!

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    • You know, I think what makes it work is the inclusion of the other voices from time to time. The story begins with the father’s death but not only does Orla not know how it happens, she also doesn’t believe it. As the story progresses there are inserts – a page, a page and a half – that are his dying thoughts, his regrets, his reasons for leaving them in a financial mess that she will never know and so on. So the reader does know more than she does, but this structure keeps what we know and she knows as separate.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Into the Sun by Marcella Poilain, see my review; […]

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  4. […] via Driving into the Sun, by Marcella Polain — ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

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  5. […] Driving into the Sun, by Marcella Polain […]

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