The struggles of a mum
The Golden Book is an adventurous novel by local writer Kate Ryan that has just been released and can be collected from North Melbourne Books.
There’s an interview with Ryan in the bookshop’s latest newsletter that addresses some of the more serious issues.
The novel is a very Australian tale idealising childhood as the source of identity (and emotional baggage).
The protagonist Eli is ambivalent, like everyone, about the restrictions of her childhood, particularly those imposed by her mother.
A mum herself at the time of writing, she has a dark secret she is carrying from a childhood incident at Mumbulla Falls near Bega.
The narrative is constructed around efforts to offload her guilt, a complex beast that throws doubt onto all of her relationships.
Implicit in this structure is the belief that the minute details of Eli’s journey, its twists and turns, flash backs and memories, are relevant because of the incident.
Aussie realism does a lot of “showing”. Is something lost in the process? Does the suppression of “telling” also squash a natural storytelling voice that feeds off sharply defined observations rather than excessive information?
The Golden Book attempts to present itself as a series of quests or dares but these get lost in the multiple branches of Eli’s memory as she returns to NSW for a funeral.
Sometimes her flashbacks are pithy – such as the description of her mother’s style, aroused by a session at the local swimming pool.
“There were so many things she insisted on, felt the need to constantly police or remind Eli about: nutritious meals eaten at the table, not too much sugar, road safety, teenage drinking, violence on TV, too much TV, sufficient sleep, bullying, the importance of reading, fresh air, exercise, the perils of peer pressure.”
This passage is a welcome stopping place for the reader where summary occurs, calling for a response. There could have been more of these “telling” moments.
At its best, this novel delves into a fading hippy culture that still existed on the southern NSW coast in the ‘90s and into the power of landscape to shape childhood.
There are some familiar descriptions of Melbourne, as the narrator looks at places that might challenge her own daughter
“Here there was soft indeterminate stuff on the ground, ropes stretching over a pyramid-style climbing frame, wooden boardwalks everywhere, coloured footholds up a tame wall. Everything designed to avoid accidents and the possibility of risk.”
“Still, of all the playgrounds, this one did have the slightest edgy feel. Perhaps it was the flying fox, perhaps it was the public housing towers casting their shadows on the grass.”
“Perhaps it was the position, high up the cloudy river below with its hints of rubbish and factory, the sound of cars on the overpass, the straggly gum trees along the riverbanks, the bike paths leading away, the sense of being on the edge of somewhere.”
The novel is personal and embedded in the struggles of a mum as she deals with the agency of her eight-year-old, triggering memories of her own fights for freedom and their tragic consequences •