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‘You don’t think so? Your trouble is you think everyone arrived here yesterday, like there’s no past attached to this. You think that because the people who live here have nice white skins and drive Holdens they’re less capable of killing people than Africans or South Americans or Asians. You’re not even scared of them. You read books but you have no sense of history. It’s precisely because they have nice white skins that they’re more likely to. How do you think we got to be the winners here? D’you see any Aboriginals around here? Huh? You think this place was empty when whites came? You’re living in a dream world.’
Kelvin has been chased across the whole of Australia by his past, bouncing from one coast to another like a rubber ball, only to find himself passing through the town of Eden, where he first ran away at age 14. Intending to stay for only a night, he is offered a day’s wage in exchange for some work at a local plant, which soon turns into a week and before he knows it he has fallen in with the local hippie community. He takes up with forestry activist Jessica, pretending to be just another middle class boy from the Sydney’s suburbs.
We come to know Jessica through chapters told from her point of view, her frustrations with the commune, known as The Farm, and her feelings for the younger and seemingly innocent Kelvin. When she introduces him to her former lover Carl, an American who owns a couple of farm animals on a property near Bega, we switch to his take on the situation. Throughout the book Lang flits between characters whom we slowly realize are each lying to one another, with some dark secrets simmering in their pasts brought to a boil by Kelvin’s arrival.
Pardon the pun, but I’m just following Lang’s lead here. There is enough to recommend a decent read, but unfortunately the language does not flow naturally, with occasionally arcane phrasing throwing off its rhythm. Attempts are made at sweeping philosophical statements about life but instead cough and pause mid-phrase, rendering the sentiment ordinary. And in describing the lives of Eden’s residents, the tone can even at times seem condescending.
Kelvin is introduced to us as more educated than the labourers he meets on arrival in Eden. Yet slowly it is revealed that he lived on the streets of Kings Cross in Sydney as a teenager and has spent his life to date without any plan, taking work where he can find it, and falling back on his looks when he needs to. Jessica is resented by some members of the Farm for her standoffish behavior and in truth, sitting around smoking dope and plotting to ‘overthrow the system’ is not on her agenda. She takes the more practical course of action of transferring from activism to the beginnings of a political life. Yet throughout the book her relationship with Kelvin is given more importance than her own ambitions, which struck me as a bit odd. Finally, it is Carl who has the most to lose by confiding his past to anyone and strangely for an Australian novel, Lang’s prose bursts into life when we travel to 1960’s America to witness the beginnings of an anti-war protest movement.
As I said, there is much of interest here. Political activism versus underground terrorism is an issue of great importance today more so than ever, with many young people feeling increasingly disenfranchised by the democratic state. Yet for Lang, broad strokes suffice and the plot progresses by small degrees in revealing each of the characters’ secrets, before ending in an unconvincing dramatic confrontation.