Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2019

Isinglass, by Martin Edmond

I have to confess to being baffled at first by this book… I did not understand how the book was coming together until I was almost halfway through it.   But I am here to tell you that it is worth persisting…

The reader is on familiar ground in the very brief first part, ‘Dark Point’: it recounts the arrival of the unknown man referred to in the blurb:

He did this amazing wall painting, this mural…It was a city, a Paul Klee or a Max Ernst city, a city of the mind perhaps, or of antiquity. A dream city. It was a wonderful thing. It took a few days and nights to do, beautiful days and nights. All the other men who lived in the donga watched it come clear. They loved it. And then other men in the camp heard about it too and came to look.

An unknown man comes ashore at a remote beach on the New South Wales coast. He is taken into detention and sent, ultimately, to Darwin. His captors call him Thursday after the day upon which he was found. Thursday doesn’t speak, but instead paints an enigmatic mural on the wall of his donga in the detention centre. It is a city, a dream city, and when he finishes he says a single word: Isinglass.

This latest offering from author Martin Edmond is a beautifully written portrayal of the shameful practices of the Australian gulag archipelago, and a compelling story of a man adrift in an unkind world.

The second part titled ‘Thursday’ is more enigmatic.  The narrator, in first person, is a journalist.  He tells the story of his meeting with C, a former lover, not seen for many years.  She brings Thursday to this man’s attention, and she subsequently wangles a visit to the detention centre where she facilitates the painting of the mural by the silent man.  C cares about Thursday, whereas for the narrator, the situation is more abstract, and in the course of this chapter, there are what appear to be digressions into theories which are difficult to grasp, and even more difficult to contextualise in terms of the novel’s intent.  Or so it seems, until it all falls into place as the novel progresses.

Part III is the story of Isinglass, narrated by Thursday and by good luck I have stumbled on part of this chapter at Martin Edmond’s blog.  Even if you never read the novel, I recommend you read this excerpt because it captures so perfectly the dilemma that all refugees face when they must choose whether to leave or stay.  This chapter traces the journey of Thursday’s people and the cities they subsequently build, all of which fail because it is human nature to create conflict out of religious beliefs, or the pursuit of power and possessions, or good old Mother Nature creating the chaos that enables cruelty and divisiveness to fester.

Thursday tells his story because he is a Rememberer, and it is in his description of hearing voices from the past that the ‘digressions’ from Part 2 begin to make sense.  At C’s urging, the narrator in Part 2 had bought a copy of a work called Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, by Julian Jaynes.  At the time of reading I did not know that Julian Jaynes was a real person, and that his book (which you can still buy) was influential in the development of the idea of a divided self and a ‘bicameral mind’.  The theory is explained in Isinglass and confirmed as authentic by Wikipedia:

Bicameralism (the condition of being divided into “two-chambers”) is a radical hypothesis in psychology that argues that the human mind once operated in a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be “speaking”, and a second part which listens and obeys — a bicameral mind. The term was coined by Julian Jaynes, who presented the idea in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, wherein he made the case that a bicameral mentality was the normal and ubiquitous state of the human mind as recently as 3,000 years ago, near the end of the Mediterranean bronze age. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove links and footnotes, viewed 5/4/19)

Thursday’s experience is an exemplar of this theory.

We had left our old ones behind on the further shore but their voices came with us, how we did not know; but when we recovered and found food and water and places to sleep, we also found that in the night, as we gathered around the fires, the voices of the old ones came upon the wind perhaps, or from the crackling of wood as it burned, or from the cries of the birds; and they told us what we should do and how we should behave.  And if it was so that in the night we could all hear the voices of the old ones, there were those among us who heard them more clearly and more often; and among these there were some who could hear voices in daylight as well, or even see the old ones moving among us, in the pattern of light and shadow on leaves, for instance, or in the way the grasses moved on a slope above the sea.  And it was from these Hearers that the first Rememberers came; and it was from the things they heard the old ones say that the first stories were made and entered into the House of Stories, where I grew up and where I lived until the disaster came upon us.

We say in the House of Stories that, before the one in which I grew up was built, there were four cities called Isinglass; and these four are remembered in their names as the City of Waters, the City of Dust, the City of Fire and the City of the Sky; the fifth, my city, was said to have been the Last City, which would endure forever unless destroyed and if destroyed, would never come again.  (p.126)

However, the next Part, ‘Darwin’ confirms what we knew from Part 2: Thursday is in one of our infamous detention centres.  And Lee, with whom Thursday finally broke his silence and told his story, has tried to salvage his conscience by illegally sharing the recording with C.  He gets sacked, of course.  Meeting some time afterwards with the journalist, he is evasive, but eventually the reader learns Thursday’s fate.

It’s not possible to read Lee’s testimony without remembering the names and faces of real people on Manus and Nauru, and that we Australians are all complicit in their fate:

You have to understand, the department would never eliminate anyone.  But they will on occasion let people die.  They don’t care.  If you’re not one of us, you’re nobody.  (p.195)

Isinglass is a powerful novel that rewards patience and persistence.  I haven’t found any other online reviews of it yet, but I hope the book gets the attention it deserves.

Check out this interesting interview with Martin Edmond at Stuff NZ too.

PS Martin Edmond is also the author of Batterbee and Namatjira (2014) which was shortlisted for the National Biography Awards in 2016.  See my review here.

Author: Martin Edmond
Title: Isinglass
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2019, 205 pages
ISBN: 9781760800116
Source: Bayside Library

Available direct from the publisher, from Fishpond Isinglass and good bookshops everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s not yet available as an eBook.

 


Responses

  1. It sounds like a big book in a small package! I like the sound of that.

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    • I suspect that your book group would find plenty to discuss if you chose this one for next year!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, we choose twice a year. In November we choose Jan to June, and in May we choose July to November. December is party time! I love not being locked in for a year. I’ll add it to your list of possibles.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The book sounds well worth the read. It obviously covers an important subject. Tragically the issue of refugees is a growing one and is likly to get worse in the coming years.

    Sometimes books with unusual structures can be very satisfying when one “figures them out”.

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    • Yes, and sometimes it’s the structure that ‘makes’ a book because it’s intrinsic to what the author is trying to do (e.g. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell).
      Now that I’ve read Isinglass, I can’t see how it could have been structured any other way. Maybe a smarter reader would have joined the dots before I did, but I have to admit that I considered giving up on it when I was reading Part 2. This part is used to show how the two protagonists reconnect after many years apart and how their idealism has weathered (which was not confusing) and to give some background on the detention centres (which would be essential for anyone who doesn’t know much about it). But it also includes a two-page explanation of how the human ear worked, and discussion not just about Julian Jaynes and his theories,but also about the Bradshaws rock art and Blissymbols ideographic writing system (which I haven’t mentioned in my review). I couldn’t see what these had to do with anything, though of course they do as the book progresses.
      I think it’s a book that merits re-reading but it’s due back at the library so that’s not going to happen.

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  3. […] et al […]

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  4. […] Isinglass, by Martin Edmond […]

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