Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Last Thread
By Michael Sala
February 2012, RRP: $24.95, ISBN: 9780987132680, 238pp
The opening of Michael Sala’s The Last Thread is both intimate and intense. The reader is drawn directly into young Michaelis’s experience: “Living room swims in light and noise. The shh from the speakers sounds like rain, so loud you can’t hear the drops.” This sensual immediacy continues through the book, even as the boy, who both is and isn’t the author, grows, and even through the distancing effect of third person. The Last Thread is a fictionalised memoir. Of course all memoir has a degree of fictionalisation. The writing always comes from a particular perspective, taking on a particular perception, through the hazy lens of of memory by virtue of choices and omissions. In the case of The Last Thread, despite the use of real names and real settings, Sala creates a story that is driven by a clear narrative arc, whose plot is developed through a series of novelistic ‘what if’ questions.
One of the main questions that forms a theme throughout the novel is whether we can escape our genetic inheritance. Are the sins of the parent really visited upon the children? This is a motif that is repeated in different contexts, and forms a scaffold that continues even when the book changes from third person to first in the second half. Right from the start, we hear young Michaelis’s father Phytos say ‘One day, you’ll have a face like this.’ It’s like the blessing from the excluded evil fairy. Phytos is handsome, but he’s also the abuser that Michaelis and his family leave their home country of the Netherlands to escape. His abuse isn’t the only evil secret the family carry with them to Australia. Sala’s mother Nici brings along the pain that she endured at the hands of her own mother – a cold anti-semite, her sisters’ cruelties, and a new partner who is also abusive. There are layers upon layers of anger and pain that come along for the ride, often inchoate in young Michaelis’s mind. The Last Thread presents an unravelling of some of that pain, not only so that it will stop resurfacing, but also as a way of healing through art.
There is also something of a bildungsroman about The Last Thread. It’s a coming of age story that presents a portrait of the artist: a story of all those moments that come together to form a literary perspective. Though it doesn’t try to be self-consciously literary in that respect – the narrative is more or less linear and straightforward and the story moves along quickly, young Michaelis’ perspective travels between perception and language:
Mum will only say Dad’s name on the pone to Moessie and to her sister. Phytos, Phytos, Phytos. This is Dad’s other name. Repeat it under your breath as you walk along in the afternoon sun, and see if the meaning changes. (46)
There is the tension between Michaelis’s native language and his adopted one. His mother talks of Gezellig or the warmth of indoors/home/conviviality. There is Echt wear or really true, or the abusive stepfather Dirk’s continuous “Verdomme” or dammit. These words are anchors to the past but they’re also words that increasingly become foreign to Michaelis – in terms of the promise they might hold, as in the case of Gezellig, or the threat that undermines him, as in the case of Verdomme. The migrant begins to reconstruct a fresh language out of an initial aphasia, where “all of his words are useless”. Later the newness comes from an attempt to understand the true meanings behind common phrases like “out of the frying pain, into the fire”, or the silence that grows between Michaelis and his mum. This is the writer’s job – to reconstruct language so that it creates a world.
Above all, there is the awakening awareness of beauty, in observations that suffuse the book in poetic richness:
Everything on Bridie Island broods. The long, straight roads boil with heat. Tar and sand scald and toughen the soles of Michaelis’s feet. The brown, leathery corpses of toads sit on the roads baking in the sun, dried blood around them. You can see storms coming in from the sea. The wter is flat. There are waves on the other side of the island, but you forget they even exist. Blue-grey clouds spill into the horizon and tighten with convulsions of light and throbbing booms of thunder. (66-67)
Throughout the novel, descriptions are lush and filled with a childlike wonder of discovery. Newcastle is a beautifully drawn city. It’s not always bucolic, but always there is a sense of warmth, as if the city, once strange, was now a true place of Gezellig. This is emphasised by the switch to first person in the second part of the book. Michaelis becomes Michael and struggles with adulthood: love, loss, work, raising a family, and freeing himself from the demons of his past that resurface in anger, in alcoholism, and in a sense of isolation. Life isn’t always a linear path though, and there is a strong though subtle meta-fictional aspect to this story that reminds us we are always working towards a broader meaning making than a single story might provide. It’s here that the themes re-emerge, along with questions about genetic inheritance, about how we make and remake ourselves, how meaning is created, and the role of language and love in all of its forms. The Last Thread is about all of those threads and more. It’s a beautifully written, delicate story that moves beyond the sadness and pain of its subject matter to find a kind of solace, joy and permanent beauty.