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There was still everything to do – one saw that at a glance. But Ashley saw things differently from his father and grandfather. They had always had in mind a picture they had brought from ‘home’, orderly fields divided by hedgerows, to which the present landscape, by planning and shaping, might one day be made to approximate. But for Ashley this was the first landscape he had known and he did not impose that other, greener one upon it; it was itself.

I am constantly amazed by this country and its incredible flora & fauna. I have spoken here before about how much I enjoy just sitting on the porch watching the birds. The other morning I found a number of baby Huntsman spiders in the house. Considering I have developed a sudden fear of spiders since coming here – well they’re bigger and poisonous unlike their European cousins – I found the little creatures surprisingly cute. However, a lot of Australia is also familiar. After all it was colonized by Britain over two hundred years ago and has kept pace culturally. Here I am on the other side of the world drinking Dr. Pepper.

The two protagonists of this novel, Ashley and Jim, view Australia’s natural state as a privilege, its untamed landscape something that should be preserved. The two men are both descended from English colonists, yet divided by class. Still they possess an equal fascination for the land they think of as they own.

Ashley encounters Jim during an afternoon ride through his ‘property’, and is inspired to hire the young man (though there are only three years difference between them) to identify the different species of birds who inhabit the area. He declares the land to be a sanctuary, a refuge for the wildlife that they find there, not to be tilled, shaped into gardens, or plots.

While Ashley is a ‘to the manor born’, product of wealth, having studied in Cambridge and Germany and become accustomed to a life of leisure, Jim’s fascination with the land is the result of his desire to escape his violent father. Secretly he fears that he has inherited the family lust for violence. The monitoring of birds proves to be his dream job, a calming and meditative activity. Imogen Harcourt, a fellow naturalist, becomes the final piece of the trio, helping Jim catalogue the species of birds with her detailed photography.

The second half of the novel disrupts this quiet sense of calm, with the call to war in Europe dragging both Ashley and Jim across to the other side of the world, the one to officer class, with his employee sent into the trenches around Armentières. The horrors of war transform Jim’s perception of the world. Where previously he could lose himself in the wonders of nature, his posting on the frontline causes him to envision a future defined by the industry of war itself. Everything free and natural that he loves will be so much collateral damage in the territorial conflicts of man.

David Malouf’s writing is both poetical and elegiac in its descriptions of two men’s growing awareness of the transience of nature and human experience. Jim’s thoughts in particular are beautifully captured. Malouf even finds strange comedy amidst the chaos of war, with a German soldier earning the nickname ‘Parapet Joe’, for his habit of shooting his machine-gun to jazz rhythms. This is later followed by a stunning vision of the afterlife, with the Australian Diggers living up to their name for all eternity.

Malouf’s story is also one of ‘refugees’, with Imogen and Jim sighting a bird native to England that has made it all the way to Queensland. Whereas Jim thinks he has discovered a new species, to Imogen it symbolizes everything she has left behind. Jim and Ashley insist on they’re being ‘native Australians’, with Aboriginals appearing only briefly during the course of the novel. They do not realize how they themselves are refugees. When the war in Europe overtakes them it is only they fading memory of the beautiful landscape they have left behind that gives them hope.

This is a delicately moving and beautifully phrased novel.

There was something about the place that he seemed unable to resist. Houses didn’t have feelings like people and animals, he knew that. But Thambaroo seemed to like him, just as he liked Thambaroo.

One of the things I love most about living here on the south coast, is being able to walk out in the mornings and see the bush-covered mountains ahead of me and the pacific ocean behind. There is so much here that can take one’s breath way, but as it is all around, the view somehow becomes ordinary and everyday. I am sitting outside as I write this, watching the exotic (to me) varieties of birds, the tall trees and porcelain blue skies overheard. Jane Carroll drew from her childhood spent on a property in the Southern Riverina district of New South Wales to perfectly describe the sights and sounds of the Australian countryside, that over time become ordinary. Yet for someone like myself, still appear full of wonder.

Mitch Brooke’s family move homes a lot. His dad is always looking for more work as a shearer and when there is no more, he simply takes his wife and children on the road again. This latest move to the quiet town of Piney Ridge is different, however. The eldest of the Brookes children, Leila, refused to move and stayed behind to work in a solicitor’s office. Now Mitch is left to look after his younger brother Benny by himself. Their mother Vivienne tries to busy herself in the garden while their at school and cooks dinner for Dennis her husband, so that he can eat when he gets home late at night. At first things seem to be going well. Mitch tries not to make any friends, because he knows that work in Piney Ridge will eventually dry up like all the other times and having friends will make it harder to leave. He keeps to himself and concentrates on his drawing. He has a talent for capturing on paper what he sees in perfect detail, something that he does not allow himself to do where his family is concerned.

Dennis Brookes is an alcoholic. After a few short weeks in Piney Ridge he relapses, coming up drunk and abusive in the evenings. When he takes out his frustrations on his wife, or children, Mitch retreats into himself. He can’t hide from what is happening in his own home though, so he finds a place where he can. The old Turner family house, named Thambaroo. One day at school he overhears Sophie Turner tell a friend that her grandmother has had an accident and is recovering in hospital. As she lives alone in Thambaroo, her son Richard Turner has insisted on his mother staying with his family. The house stands empty and Mitch begins to visit it in secret, finding a peace in amongst the memories and relics of other people’s lives, that have built up in this one place over the course of many years. He even befriends Sophie, breaking his number one rule of no attachments. Worse, he knows if she ever finds out he has been staying in her family’s house, she’ll never forgive him. Despite his fears, he continues to return to Thambaroo, until one night his dad goes too far and Mitch’s secret life is threatened.

Carroll has a gift for bringing the flora and fauna of the Australian countryside to life, just as Mitch has for his art. At one point he tells Sophie that he finds her compelling in her ordinariness. In a sense this sums up the novel, how we become accustomed to our surroundings and begin to imagine them as being ordinary. We take our lives for granted and it is only when our peace is under threat, that we realize how important it is, how a home can shape and define us.

I mentioned to my mother-in-law that this was a somewhat grim story, but well told. There is real craft here, as a simple story is sometimes the hardest thing to do. It also manages to capture how isolated life as a teenager can feel.

So ultimately I finished this story with a strong sense of satisfaction. Yes it’s a bit grim, but it also ends on a hopeful note. Well told and true to life.

(Disclaimer – I couldn’t find an image of Vivienne Goodman’s cover for Thambaroo so I plumbed for Andrew Wyeth‘s Christina’s World as a place-holder until I take a photo. Yes I realize the irony in supplanting an image of the Australian countryside with a famous picture of the same, but from the States!)

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