Reviewed by Phillip Howlette
The Beachcomber’s Wife
By Adrian Mitchell
2016, ISBN 978 1 74305 455 0, paperback, 184pages
An elderly woman living on a tropical island off the Queensland coast waits for help from the mainland for three long and distressing days. Her husband has died and while he lies in their cabin near the beach she looks back over her reclusive life of almost twenty five years with him.
In E.J Banfield’s writings (Confessions of a Beachcomber and others) there are almost no references to his wife at all and so she is a bit of a mystery. But in Adrian Mitchell’s elegant and imaginative style he recounts what it might have been like to live on the island through Banfield’s wife’s point of view. Through a mingling of fact and fiction the author has created a beautifully told story of one woman’s struggle to make a home against all the odds, all the while in a constant struggle with her health and the difficulties of life with a workaholic husband.
The story opens with the weather turning, the light receding and the birds heading for cover. The sky has turned grey, no colour in the sky, no sunset this evening. Everywhere is tense and yet to her, whenever he was away on one of his walks this was a place of great calm. In one succinct passage the author signals a powerful indication as to the state of mind of the beachcomber’s wife.
Now our separateness from the mainland comes home hard. He always wanted to be separate. This time that arrogance has found us out.
He used to be stubborn about insisting on the beauty out here, the island, the bay, the channel, the long stretch of ranges. It is, indeed, beautiful on a good day. Interesting in other weathers. And terrifying in a storm. And you can have enough of paradise.
The signal fires have died down and in the gathering storm all she can do is wait and pray. She sits, looking down towards the beach and sees the place where their boat nudged up on to the sand on that first day twenty five years ago.
And now that he’s gone she waits for three days filling the empty hours with her thoughts about her life and how she came to be here now.
Adrian Mitchell’s exquisite writing captures the essence of the island in such a way that the reader becomes immersed in the life upon it. And within these wonderful descriptions of a tropical paradise it is easy for the reader to be completely captivated by the imagined life of his subject. The author’s words, spoken through the mind of the beachcomber’s wife, draw us in so that we feel her emotions one after the other.
As the story is related we are reminded of the way she thinks about herself and the island, and in an often seemingly throw-away line we are given the key to her true feelings about her husband.
When he was looking at the corals and fish and crabs, he had a box with a glass bottom that he used to peer into, either when he was wading about or leaning over the edge of the boat. As for me, I lolled in the sandy shallows, idly dabbling after those intriguing shadows cast on the sandy bottom, tracing paths from one ripple to the next, soaking up the warmth. I wanted nothing to do with the deep. Whereas Edward seemed never happier than when he was out of his depth.
Towards the end of the book I sensed the story was being a little over-told and that I wanted to know the ending. Though on reflection I imagined that spending your life on a secluded tropical island alone with your thoughts, it would be easy to have enough of paradise.
Adrian Mitchell taught and published in Australian literature at the University of Adelaide, where he was born and then at the University of Sydney where he remains an Honorary Research Associate. His main interest now is in retrieving the stories of those who have been passed over or forgotten, and in finding new ways of re-presenting them. With The Beachcombers Wife the author has given a re-imagined voice to someone who was once forgotten but now resonates fondly in our memories and for this, Adrian Mitchell is to be applauded for his contribution to the world of literature.