Living with Australia's beauty and terror

Lohrey, Amanda: Vertigo. Black Inc, Melbourne 2008. ISBN 9781863953191Vertigo, by Amanda Lohrey, ISBN 9781863953191

The Victorian bushfire tragedies suggest that Dorothea Mackellar was right. Except for works by Indigenous people, Australian literature has one deep and abiding theme — the continent's 'beauty and her terror'.

A writer's concern might seem to be primarily psychological or social or political, but the constant motivation is to interpret the ways in which living in this place of contrasting landscapes and climates influences the human condition.

Amanda Lohrey's novella Vertigo addresses this question directly but its subtleties should not be overlooked.

Luke and Anna, editors of corporate and legal documents, have portable skills but modest incomes. Life in mortgage-obsessed Sydney threatens to make them, especially Anna, 'anxiously acquisitive', corroding her good will towards the world.

That most acidic of beasts, envy, had a fang-hold on her heart. She was past 30, she was in a spiritual impasse and she needed to find a way out of it.

When she develops asthma — 'an invisible vampire' — they decide to go bush into 'a mysterious limbo, a potential space waiting to be filled'. Readers of Lohrey's 1995 novel Camille's Bread will not be surprised at how skilfully Lohrey evokes lives in limbo.

As they drive 'the boy' materialises more often than he had in the city. The reader shares their quest to deal with this apparition and to understand what he represents.

They happen upon the hamlet of Garra Nalla by a river and lagoon near the sea. This is a place of beauty, with flowering gums that make a 'palette of pinks and orange and gold' and she-oaks that provide 'a subtle blur of fine filaments ... drooping to the ground in wispy canopies'. Garra Nalla has escaped development because a rip on the beach claims lives regularly.

They pack a sophisticated espresso machine, but otherwise they adapt quickly to their old weatherboard house: preoccupied with saving water in an area that has experienced seven years of drought, cooking on a fuel stove, becoming involved in their neighbours' lives.

Luke delights in identifying birds and when one, fearless, stares back at him, 'a current passes between them, a soundless exchange of energy'. Luke is ecstatic because he feels so at home.

Anna experiences greater doubts. The boy becomes elusive. She decides to plant casuarinas, against the advice of Gil, a neighbour, who calls them a fire hazard. She-oaks propagate after fire: 'Australia, it seems, is a land of phoenix trees — fertile in extremity.' When Luke teases her about trying to 'design' a random layout, Anna admits that while it can never be bush, 'we can meet the bush halfway'.

When the fire comes, possibly ignited by forestry management, Anna wonders whether the smoke will aggravate her asthma. Conditions deteriorate gradually in the heat and wind and they take the usual precautions, blocking downpipes, storing water, soaking towels.

Soot and embers soon announce the urgency of the situation as the power fails, despite their neighbour's assurance that fires 'never reach the coast'. But this one does. Homes are burnt and lives threatened.

As Anna and Luke face this crisis, Lohrey draws together the numerous themes she has packed into this densely rich novella — the boy, the limbo and the quest to belong. 'Dawn brings an eerie, smouldering calm', but far from being cloudy or grey, Lohrey's prose is bright and sparkling. In the fire's aftermath, the people of Garra Nalla rally to support one another and, inevitably, to reassess their values and priorities.

In contrast to the shallow sentimentality which often underlies tabloid television coverage of tragedy and natural disaster, Lohrey's sensitive writing explains much about our relationship to the bush. Perhaps it is difficult for outsiders to understand, but rebuilding devastated communities must be a national priority. Like the plaques in small town halls honouring fallen soldiers, this project is embedded in the national psyche.

Black Inc

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.

Topic tags: tony smith, Amanda Lohrey, victorian bushfires, ISBN 9781863953191, Black Inc, Melbourne



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