Chipping away at Australia's frozen heart

Nowra, Louis: Ice. Allen & Unwin, 2008. ISBN: Ice, by Louis Nowra, 9781741754834 RRP: $32.95

How much of classic Australian literature seems to concern itself with frustration in the deepest sense — the stillbirth of hopes and dreams, the futility of aspirations, a yawning emptiness at the heart of things.

Louis Nowra's new novel, Ice, joins this tradition, with a mesmeric proliferation of intense images to drive home the point, and a plot that pushes over into the Gothic.

Malcolm McEacharn is destined to become a great man of 19th century Sydney and Melbourne. His first heroic achievement is to tow an iceberg from Antartica into Sydney Harbour — and, as the iceberg is chipped away by the many overheated Sydney-siders who want a piece of it, its heart is revealed to be death — specifically, the body of a young sailor, perfectly preserved and lost at sea 40 years.

McEacharn, a Scotsman whose ship's-captain father perished in Bass Strait when he was a child, and who was abandoned by his mother, has also lost his Welsh wife of one year. Her death, or at least, his grief over it, is the driving force behind all the many restless activities of his life.

The spectacular importation of the iceberg is a daring, but foiled attempt to make his fortune. Later he pioneers the transportation, by ship, of frozen meat from Australia to Britain. More ice, more unnatural preservation, more death.

He marries a second wife, for her money, and begins to prosper both financially and politically in colonial Melbourne. Meanwhile, he becomes an avid collector of animal embryos, and under his huge architectural folly of a house, Goathland, he begins to build a secret monument to his own tortured psychology.

But the story of Malcolm is a story within a story. Its narrator is the husband of Malcolm’s current-day biographer, who lies in a coma after having been attacked by an addict in contemporary Sydney. The attacker’s addiction is the party drug, ice.

Ice is about death, the fanatical resistance to change, the futility of attempts at preservation and, perhaps, the emptiness at the heart of Australian life.

It is also about love: the life-long love of Malcolm for his dead bride, the suspended grief of the narrator’s love for his comatose biographer wife. In one of the novel’s core images, Malcolm describes each person as being like an onion — an entity made up of layer after layer which, in the end, reveals nothing at its heart — unless the person has loved, in which case that love will give the onion a soul.

But the love depicted in Ice — obsessive, rigidly resistant to change or growth, and always in a state of grief — is itself no more than a living death.

Ice (Allen & Unwin)

Cassandra GoldsCassandra Golds is a Sydney-based author of children's fiction. Her latest book, The Museum of Mary Child, will be published by Puffin in early 2009.


Topic tags: Cassandra golds, ice, louis nowra, malcolm mchearn, australian literature, 9781741754834



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