Monday, June 11, 2007

Careless, by Deborah Robertson

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of how much I admired Sylvia Martin’s book about the wonderful Ida Leeson. Ida should be dripping with literary accolades. She should have grabbed all the literary prizes for 2007. But Ida has regularly missed out, and was pipped at the post for the NSW Literary awards by a book by a West Australian writer, Careless. So, to be honest, I opened Deborah Robertson’s book with a teeny bit of resentment.

But Careless is a good book.

Firstly, it gives an excellent account of contemporary Australia. You wouldn’t think that was noteworthy, but historical novels are so pervasive that the description of narrative worlds where the characters live in units, drink Coke and watch flat-screen televisions feels recklessly innovative.

Careless explores the impact of a violent tragedy on a range of vaguely connected characters. Children feature large, or rather the relationships adults have with children, in all their variety. The subtlety of Deborah Robertson’s portrayal of being a parent was striking. She doesn’t romanticise. She describes the everyday love, ambivalence, exasperation, fun and occasional neglect of normal parenting. I enjoyed that very much.

The book is also about grief, and ambition, and creativity, and raises questions about what makes a fitting memorial to the dead. It uses the image of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water in multiple ways to represent, I imagine, the layers of grief and love which can stand strong while a forceful undercurrent seeps below. The hope which emanates from a beautiful building built by a man who had experienced great tragedy. The idea that we can reshape the future but that life flows on. I enjoyed this too.

But in the end there was something unfulfilling in this book, also noted by other bloggers (Lucy’s blog, Tea&Tattered pages ). Which leads me to a perennial speculation about whether writers would be well advised to conduct UAT (User Acceptance Testing – common practice for websites and virtual spaces) with Josephine Blow to get more honest feedback than they get from commercial critics and literatis.

But anyway, perhaps it was the Epilogue which failed. It was far too late to introduce new characters. But ultimately, that let-down feeling is because of the absence of any kind of optimism for the little girl, Pearl, whose strength is impressive, but who is destined to be always held back by her mother and her sense of responsibility.

Careless won the 2007 Kibble Award for women’s life writing, and has been short listed for a swag of other prizes. It’s a good book, but not a patch on Ida. Then again, how healthy is Australian writing when, in one year, we get a range of books to read of this calibre?