Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Christine Evans
September 2015, ISBN: 9781742587561, 180 pages
The voice of the playwright is obvious in Christine Evan’s verse novel Cloudless. A rich blend of characterisation, setting, and powerful thematics weaving from poem to poem, the novel takes us deep into the heart of working class Perth in the 1980s. Each of the eight key voices who make up the story are on the cusp of something: their lives about to change. In many ways, the change is not for the better. Sally Jo leaves her young son and thwarted dreams behind, and ends up in the arms of an unsavory biker. Auntie is falling to pieces, overwhelmed by loss, remorse, and displacement. Bat Girl is on the verge of her own transformation on a number of levels. Jackie is coming of age, poised on a diving board between childhood and adulthood.
Each poem is titled with the point-of-view character’s name, and provides a brief vignette or moment in their lives before we move to another. The effect is surprisingly fast paced, natural and narrative in flow. The novel moves in normal time, progressing along with the characters as they develop and intersect. The focal point of the novel is the “Beatty Park Leisure Centre”, a real aquatic centre or series of pools on Vincent Street in North Perth, Western Australia. The Centre becomes a catalyst where the different characters’ stories bisect. In a touch of perfect dramatic irony, Evans ensures that the characters themselves don’t see these connections. They pass one another mostly oblivious to what is linking them, but the reader is in on it: we see the bisecting lines as the characters we begin to know, cross one another at the pool.
Beatty Park is the place where Jackie moves from gawky younger-sister ‘tag-a-long’, to tanned, brave diving goddess, catching Karri’s eye. Karri is Bat Girl’s brother. Bat Girl is a rather fascinating, autistic and difficult character, who is assaulted by noise and able to do extensive mathematics in her head:
Splashes, ripples, arrowheads of light
the crack of bodies slapping water
all form patterns she can measure
weave into a hard and shiny shape –
a beetles’s shell from the world’s chaotic waves. (“Bat Girl”, 15)
Bat Girl sees young Jerome’s metal teddy bear at the pool and wants it; knows, somehow, that it holds a secret current that will secure her transformation:
Bat Girl’s made an echo-capture trap
to amplify harmonics, re-mix them as sodor.
With greater reach, this thing could map out space
like dolphins do with soar underwater—
an echo-sounder built to work in air.
But what it needs is power. (“Jerome”, 51)
Jerome sees Jackie poised on the diving board and think she’s Sally Jo, his missing mother:
A perfect arc
A falling star
A blaze of curls and limbs—(“Jackie”, 65)
Auntie sees Jerome’s urgent need too late, exhausted by the weight of responsibility thrust upon her, and the story progresses to its climax that will engulf everyone for a few moments, in the “telescoping present”.
In one way or another, all of the characters get hurt, in this town where tragedy is just a few steps away, and almost inevitable. However, and this is Evans’ magic, there is something else that happens. It doesn’t whitewash the injustice or inequality of these lives, or diminish the intensity of loss, ibut at the end, something extraordinary happens. These doomed individuals move beyond their limitations and are transformed.
On one level, Cloudless is so steeped in the gritty limitations of these lives that it’s like a study in hyper-realism: the refuges of homelessness, poverty, racism and broken families, the displacement, the loneliness and lack of opportunity. On another level though, the lens moves outward, into an almost galactic pan, so we see the underlying beauty in each and every one of these characters. The bereaved bus-driver; the lost child in search of a mother; the misfit in search of a home she can truly belong to all become timeless:
The three of them ensnared
Inside a wind-up metal watch
With no escape. His heart thumps.
Hands are seating. Trapped.
Time crumples and expands
His bus a broken beetle, stranded (“Auntie”, 125)
Though these are painful transitions, each of the characters become something different and in their transmutation, the reader sees the ultimate beauty and utter humanness in all of us:
A silver cloud forms over Beatty Park
This cloudless summer day. (“CODA: Sally Jo”, 170)
Though deceptively easy to read, Cloudless is a deeply beautiful and very powerful story of love and transcendence. The writing is both clear and simple, and deeply, richly poetic.