Friday 11 September 2015

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest

Filled with a rich cast of unforgettable characters, a powerful magical realist novel of an ordinary outback town made extraordinary.
"When Macha Connor came home from the war she walked into town as naked as the day she was born, except for well-worn and shining boots, a dusty slouch hat, and the .303 rifle she held across her waist."

 Macha patrols Siddon Rock by night, watching over the town's inhabitants: Brigid, Granna, and the melancholic men of the Aberline clan; the tailor Alistair Meakins, with his elegant fantasies; Sybil Barber, scrubbing away at the bloodstains in her father's butcher shop; Reverend Siggy, afraid of the outback landscape and the district's magical saltpans; silent Nell with her wild dogs; publican Marg, always accompanied by a cloud of blue; and the inscrutable new barman, Kelpie Crush. It is only when refugee Catalin Morningstar and her young son Josis arrive and stir up the town that Macha realizes there is nothing she can do to keep the townspeople safe.
Goodreads description

This is a novel by an author who clearly both understands and loves magic realism. You can see the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in this portrayal of a small town in the Australian outback. We are given the almost mythic birth of the town - I say almost mythic because of course this is magic realism and the magic mixes with the realism easily and without comment. Aborginal dream stories collide with Celtic legend, history becomes myth, perhaps through repeated telling, perhaps not:
stories are like people; they change shape as they get older.  Some get thinner with less detail, others pad out like the most comfortable grandmother.

And the magic continues into the time and setting of the main story of the two women, Catalin and Macha, who carry terrible memories of World War Two, and who discover that the horror that men are capable of can wait in the middle of the Australian bush. The landscape surrounding Siddon Rock with its stark beauty and brutal nature is in many ways a character in the book. Guest shows a small community that is almost trapped by it. Huge machines fail to work and rust like the hulking skeletons of dead dinosaurs in the salt-riddled land. Dust storms arrive and swallow the town. Dust is a theme in the book and there is a strong scene in which the Reverend Siggy bewilders his flock with a sermon about the dust. 

In this world it seems that woman are the stronger and more interesting characters - not just Macha and Catalin, but also Granna, the mysterious carer of the Abeline family, and Nell, the aboriginal woman who grows in stature at night. The men are less well drawn or are perhaps simply less strong. Siddon Rock comes with a large cast of characters and we move from one to the other, so it is perhaps not surprising if not all of them appealed to me equally. 

Structurally the novel is interesting. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Marquez's book, it does not follow the traditional three-part structure. Instead a canvas revealing the life of Siddon Rock is painted with the narrational climax coming late and without a conventional resolution, a climax which is foreshadowed throughout the book. 

I recommend this book to you.


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Sounds like a must-read kind of book.

Lily Iona MacKenzie said...

I love the image of this woman walking into town naked!