Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2020

The Fifth Season, by Philip Salom

Ever since I discovered the novels of Philip Salom when the Miles Franklin Award shortlisted Waiting in 2017, I’ve been on the lookout for more of his work.  I loved The Returns which was shortlisted in 2020, and just last week I was excited to track down his early novels Playback (1981) and Toccata and Rain (2004), both published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press:

I haven’t read these early novels yet, but because I edited their entries in the Goodreads database, I recognised elements of Toccata and Rain in Salom’s new novel, The Fifth Season, published by Transit Lounge.  This is from the blurb of Toccata and Rain:

Like a contemporary Rip Van Winkle, Simon awakes only to find he has been inventing another life. He lives where he has no memory of living. There are astonishing towers he has built of steel and broken ceramic in Sarah’s Melbourne backyard.  He is a man caught between two very different versions of himself.

Simon and Sarah are also characters in The Fifth Season, and those astonishing towers of steel and broken ceramic feature as well.  But whereas Waiting and The Returns were memorably set in inner Melbourne, The Fifth Season is set in the small coastal town of Blue Bay, and Sarah’s backyard is in her airbnb, rented out to Jack who’s come to Blue Bay to write.

If you’ve ever stayed in one of those over-decorated ‘homely’ B&Bs, you will warm to Jack from the first page:

The cottage sits above footpath level, with wooden steps up to a front verandah too short for anything besides a table and a wicker armchair. He can see himself there with a glass of wine, watching the ocean as the sea breeze arrives.  But not too many or a step forward and he’d plunge into the yard. His writing went downhill, they’d say.  At the front door he clicks the numbers into the lock safe and removes the keys.  An old-fashioned wooden door, the heft of which is pleasing, then a short corridor of small bedrooms before the space widens out and up, into open plan and vaulted ceilings.  The interior is hot and airless.  Up, down, across, his laser over-fussy senses have scanned the place in seconds.  He knows straight off the space is right but the décor probably needs destroying. (p.3-4)

And that’s exactly what he does.  He prefers the feng shui of bare floors and walls.  Out it all goes until all that remains is a single chair, a table to write at, and a cocktail of medicines on the shelf.

I would have got rid of it too if I planned to live somewhere like this for three months:

…the floral lounge suite, the shrieky porcelain flowers (seriously, why?) on the sideboard, and […] a starey-faced painting hung on the main wall like a stricken portal into some hell of ever-present eyes.  […]

He hopes that Sarah isn’t as fussy and old-fashioned as her decorations; perhaps some idiot rental manager said her customers would be middle-aged women more accustomed to the … ornamental. Who thought Andrew Lloyd Webber was a genius. (p.4)

Well, fussy and old-fashioned she certainly isn’t, but she turns up she’s snarky.  She hopes he’s taken a photo so that he can put it all back exactly where it was, but they become friends notwithstanding.

Jack’s project is a book about ‘found people’: the Somerton Man, the Gippsland Man, the Isdal Woman, the Piano Man, Cornelia Rau.  All people who are found dead or amnesiac — their identities unknown by accident or designBut in one of a series of eerie correspondences, Sarah is an activist in search of missing people, and her life is consumed by the absence of her sister.  She paints massive portraits of Alice in public spaces, along with portraits of other people who are missing, in order to raise awareness of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN). Not everyone likes her doing this, because some people who disappear don’t want to be found, (and Jack turns out to be surprisingly brave).

Salom’s gift for characterisation is as sharp in a coastal town as it was on the streets of Melbourne in Waiting and The Returns.  The pub is where Jack goes to listen and learn: normal pub talk is kneejerk sport and town gossip and moves slowly. With many replays. Here he meets Else behind the bar, her loser of a husband Kevin, and poor old Fred who has a tidal manner in talking.  Beth at the fruit & veg finds Jack amusing because he counts his beans… he’s a serious cook, not because he’s a gourmet but because of his health.   He likes Susan at the museum with the Gippsland Man exhibit: she understands his interest in the lost people who’ve lost their memory, lost themselves but were real once, somewhere, sometime.  People we have to invent, want to invent, to re-find and make them real again. 

Though dealing with serious issues, The Fifth Season is a playful book, and the reader has to untangle strands which seem to go every which way.  Jack finds a book, which is about the people in the town.  (Or they think it is, as people always seem to find themselves in books written by authors that they know).  The author of the book is the man who built the strange mosaics in the back garden.  He calls himself Simon, but he’s a mysterious fellow, and he disappears, leaving only his strange book behind him, and his even stranger garden.

In Part 2, ‘Fiction’, the text is in Italics, to signal that it’s from Simon’s book:

Salamander with trencadis at Parc Guell Barcelona (Wikipedia)

Once he is outside, in the well-lit shed beside the house, he picks up his favourite hammer and begins smashing plates.  They shatter unpredictably, having no grain, and he whacks each of them hard in the centre, or angles blows at their raised edges, big shards clattering into the large wooden box at his feet.  His left hand is gloved for protection, a thick leather hand.  He reaches down into the overlapping colours and fragments and selects pieces large enough to break again.  The trick is to keep the shards big enough to use, small enough to fit on the struts and outward surfaces.  The trencadis technique of Gaudí. (p.123)

However, Simon’s efforts aren’t like Gaudi’s work, an example of which you can see above, or on the Sagrada Familia.  The garden at Sarah’s has no grass, or plants, or trees or even earth.  Jack is stunned — no wonder Sarah said he had to see it for himself.

The entire area has been rendered solid.  It is the end result of a kiln.  Inset with shards of brick and paving and broken ceramics.  The garden pathways begin at the back door and expand over the ground areas in curves, or sometimes even into curling cul-de-sacs, laid in broken stoneware and roof tiles, and the big, upright things he thought were planters the night before are head-height and steep-sided vessels completely covered in porcelain mosaics.  They are crazy Egyptian pots or urns; the entire area looks like an inverted mosque, an Arabic ceiling pulled to ground and wrapped around small bloated chimneys.  Eistein’s time-space bending and wrapping around the planet Earth. (p.15)

Jack draws the strands together to identify the psychological ingenuousness of Simon’s strange book, which is really about Simon himself but as Brian and Simon, therefore two selves: it is the memoir of one self who can’t remember the other.

His second self was a confabulation, so the novel-memoir is a confabulation of a confabulation.  It is tautological: a tall story of a tall story.  Of itself.  (p.129)

This suggests to me that Salom is up to serious mischief with this book.  Jack makes his own house inside her house, to enclose within the shell of Sarah’s cottage another cottage of his own.  Simon’s book is within Jack’s narrative, and Salom on page 123 and for all I know elsewhere as well, quotes word for word from his own novel Toccata and Rain.  Jack makes himself strange in his own writing.  That’s why he always writes in the third person: he always tells people it is my dissociated self. Simon’s book, according to Sarah, uses rain as a motif for Simon’s dissociations. And it rains a lot in The Fifth Season.  There are floods, and Jack would get soaked except that he wears Simon’s weatherproof coat that was left behind when he disappeared.

I think I need to read this intriguing novel again to unravel some of these mysteries.

Image credit: Dragon with trencadis at Parc Guell Barcelona (Wikipedia): By Baikonur – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96120


Responses

  1. You’ve caught my interest Lisa!

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    • I am fascinated by this book, I want everybody to read it so that we can chat together about teasing out its mysteries. (Subject to the imminent arrival of Richard Flanagan’s new book which Readings says is en route,) I’m going to finish reading my current novel (which is also brilliant) and then I’m going to read Toccata and Rain, very carefully, and then I’m going to re-read The Fifth Season.

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  2. Snap! My library has copies on order, so I’ve placed a reservation. You’ve done it again, Lisa :-)

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    • I can’t wait for you to read it, we may need to have an email chat about it so that we don’t do spoilers for other people.

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  3. Ooh lovely, I already have this on order at our local library – I still have to read The Returns but got waylaid by Graham Swift and Steven Caroll! I’ve put my book group onto Salom’s books and also a few library staff – I have to spread the good news when I discover another wonderful author! Thanks for the review Lisa – I’ve now got a surfeit of great books to read! I think Waiting will remain my favourite of Salom’s simply because I loved the two main characters so much!

    What are his earlier books like, do tell!

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    • I will, I promise. I’m going to read Toccata and Rain ASAP and then re-read this one because I suspect that Salom has done something very clever but I haven’t quite joined the dots.
      But Richard Flanagan’s book comes first, I am getting all excited about it, I keep going to the front door in case the Readings delivery has come.

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      • Aha that sounds interesting Lisa! It’s also nice to know someone else gets as excited as I do at the prospect of a new book by a favourite author!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love playful books (and I love Gaudi!) though, as you say, they can be tricky and you can feel that you haven’t got it all. Playful minds are fun but challenging (in a good way!)

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    • I’m not suggesting that it’s like Ulysses, it’s not in that league (which for many people less weird than I am, would be a good thing). But it *is* like Ulysses in that I suspect that re-reading will enable me to join some dots, and/or pick up on some cues that will make things clearer. Like The Weaver Fish, a book that makes a merit of re-reading with close attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] trouble with reading an exceptional book like Philip Salom’s new novel The Fifth Season is that one can’t help but expect whatever comes next to be a […]

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