Apr/May 2000 Book Reviews

Dream Stuff

David Malouf
Jonathan Cape, Random House (February 2000) 224 pages
ISBN: 07011 69427

reviewed by Ann Skea

It was another world up there, a place so hidden and old, so deeply mythologized by the games they played in the twists and turns of its branches, their invented world of tribes and wars and castles, that the moment you hauled yourself up into its big-leafed light and shade you shook loose of the actual, were freed of the ground rules and the habits of a life lived on floorboards and in room.

This could almost be a metaphor for this book, this tangled world of yellow flowering native hibiscus into which the boy, Jack, climbs to escape from reality. Another world does haunt these stories: a timeless, Australian world of peculiar light, of myth, and of the dark power of the land in which David Malouf's various characters live. It is so much part of them that they are hardly conscious of it, but it is this, as much as the ghosts, the strange events and fantasies, which is the dream stuff of the book's title.

Malouf, an Australian poet who has just been awarded the 2000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, came late to prose writing. It took him a long time, he said in a recent BBC interview, to discover how to make voices work in prose. But the voices in these stories do work, and they work well. There are male and female voices, young and old, and time spans a period which extends from the Second World War to the present. The unifying element throughout the stories is Australia.

The first story is of Jack, an eleven-year-old boy whose father is missing-in-action in a world war which seems far distant from the lives of most Australians. Families spend the long, hot summer holidays in a home-away-from home, camping at the beach. American service men on leave come and go, filling in as escorts for the young, lonely women, and children grow from childhood to adolescence.

Jack's young mother comes to accept that her husband is dead long before Jack does, and her life, seen through Jack's eyes, moves on in ways he does not at first understand. Jack is poised between childhood and the beginning of adolescence. And Malouf is expert at suggesting Jack's childish need to keep his world safe and familiar, and the shock of sudden knowledge when he is confronted with things he already knows but has not been ready to accept.

For Jack, maturity begins during a fierce thunder storm when he runs for comfort to his mother's bedroom but finds himself, instead, confronting the reality of her relationship with an American friend, Mitch, and a ghostly vision of his father.

Nine-year-old Amy, in the next story, "Closer," is very different to Jack. "We're Pentecostals," she tells us at the start of her narrative. And her language is full of biblical echoes and meanings, some of which she understands and some which the reader understands but she does not. This allows Malouf to tell a story which Amy does not fully comprehend although she is acutely aware of the emotional tensions which surround it.

Amy's Uncle Charles lives in Sodom (which she tells us is Sydney) and has committed abominations for which he has been banned from the family farm. In spite of the ban, each Easter and Christmas he turns up at the farm and gazes at the gathered family from the far side of the boundary fence before driving off again. Amy's picture of him, blond, tanned, driving a silver BMW with the number plate GAY 437 is one of the few false notes in the story, suggesting that Malouf is merely creating a rather obvious moral parable. But the subtle revelation, through Amy's naive voice, of the complex and distressing emotional tensions in the family is far from moralising and is very moving.

The hopeful dream ending of the story, too, suggests, as elsewhere in the book, that Malouf shares some of the faith that the Pentecostals have in a guiding spirit. This is never spelled out and is always open to other, realistic meanings - an offered hand, an image of "a new day coming" - but it is there, balancing the darkness and violence which surfaces in so many of the stories.

A second, more recent, war story concerns Sally, who works as a "widow" - a temporary wife for servicemen on rest and recreation leave in Sydney from the Vietnam War. Malouf explores the feelings this young woman has as she provides a substitute home for various young men, some of whom she becomes emotionally close to, some of whom plan for a future return, and others who are distant, distracted, boorish and unpleasant. After acting the part of a wife for so long and for so many needy men, a return to normal life when the war is over is difficult and uncertain for her. The story has no clichéd happy ending but realistically suggests a tentative hope of happiness when Sally meets a man who seems self-confident and self-sufficient.

"Dream stuff," the story which gives the book its title, is altogether more complex. A writer (who could well be Malouf, except that Malouf has said that there is no such thing as autobiographical fiction) returns to his home-town of Brisbane to give a book-reading. Childhood memories, violent and inexplicable events and a disturbing dream occur, and are presented in a fragmented sequence of passages which I found disconnected and puzzling on first reading. But the BBC interview with Malouf was enlightening. Speaking of what might have been, he said: "If you leave a place in your early twenties, you're always haunted by that other person you might have been. There are always corners where you stand at seventeen waiting for someone who didn't turn up." Memories, fiction, unfinished business and other-peoples' lives, this is the dream stuff of the story, just as surely as the marijuana grown and secretly harvested in the huge fabled plantations of local myth.

In all the stories in this book, the inexplicable violence, the seedy nightlife of Brisbane, the suggestion of some dark, ghostly inheritance which is barely held in check by a thin veneer of civilisation, all seep in from the land. It is an "underground," an ancient, dark, fecund, tropical greenery, "swarming with insects and rotting with a death that [will] soon once again be life. It is, like the last, threatened pocket of bush in "Jacko's Reach," a place of legend and myth, of childhood exploration and adolescent experiment. And, as in "Lone Pine," it is the vast, empty, unforgiving, barely explored expanse of Australia which is fleetingly traversed by tourists, retirees and adventurers.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Australian bush, all this may seem fanciful. Those who know it, will recognise it in these stories, just as they will recognise Malouf's evocations of Australian life. His people live and speak, dream and die, in a land which they know, or learn, that they must accept and co-exist with (just as the Aborigines once did), rather than fight to control.

Dream Stuff, certainly, is the work of a fine story-teller, and Malouf's characters and their stories are as interesting and as strongly presented in this book as the land they inhabit.


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