Elemental is an exquisite novel. Every word of it is tightly crafted and pregnant with possibility. It is self-referential and post-modern in the way it undermines time, creating a genetic and emotional link between characters in multiple times and places.
The novel’s strength is the very personal journey the reader takes alongside Amy as she weighs up conventional First World medical procedures with the almost Cavewoman-style natural homebirthing. It is a suspenseful ride with her as she battles conventions, the expectations of others as well as a category three tropical cyclone to boot.
Yes, it’s a great Australian novel, full of people and places that are both inherently part of their time and true to that space. Above all though, what elevates this book from a cracking good yarn to something that is great, is the magic. The book is rife with magic, so purely woven into the story you might miss it on a first reading. It’s a magic that comes straight from a love of humanity – a generous, funny magic that picks up on all that is truly beautiful, even amidst our flaws.
Despite the horror of Hester’s life – a horror that remains with the reader – there is also a deep sensual beauty. The reader is also left with Hester’s sense of joy and freedom in swimming in a river, noticing the life of the natural world: of insects; dappled light; or an “empty, blue sky” that never ends.
As with Gould’s Book of Fish, Wanting undermines history, recreating it in a magical realism form that tells a greater truth. Like Adrienne Eberhart’s Jane, Lady Franklin, what drives the story is not what happened but what was felt. Unlike Eberhart’s Lady Franklin, Flanagan’s heroine is as guilty as she is tragic. She destroys what she loves by denying herself.
Though Davies’ Hughes isn’t exactly a likable character, the intimacy is so striking and the intensity of the portrait so great that Hughes becomes someone entirely familiar. Not so much the grand aviator with all the superlatives of his status: richest, fastest, most inventive, but instead, a man like any other, pursued by demons and running hard to find a way to live through them.
Bahram’s is the voice of the newly-arrived immigrant, misunderstood and always alien, at home neither in the country he has come from nor the one he now inhabits. Such people are becoming increasingly common in our globalised society, and their outsider voices need to be heard and heeded if the notion of a ‘global village’ is to ever become a reality.
This last sentence so changes the story, that this reader at least, went back and re-read it in its entirety, seeing everything in a different light. I enjoyed it the first time, but found much to reflect on the second – the hallmark of a good novel. Che is believable, both as the eight-year old boy struggling to find himself, and as the older, wiser narrator he becomes by the end of the book.
Ballou has created a much more complex novel in Aphelion than in Father Lands, but it’s no more difficult to read as a result. The complexity of time, place and multiple view points is dealt with sensitively and with a sophistication that is always tempered by Ballou’s great love of character and language, and an undercurrent of enduring humour that’s never far beneath the surface.
The photographs become everyone’s close people. The times and places become our own memories of what we’ve known, and been and where we’ve ended. It is, indeed, a long afternoon – and at the end of it is evening. Though this isn’t a fast novel to read, nor does it leave the reader with a denouement in any sense. Yet it is both beautiful, and powerful in its ability to draw out, like a great poem, the core meaning of a moment.