Sensitivity and skill

Pandanus Books, operating under the aegis of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, has a new imprint—Sullivan’s Creek. The man behind this is Ian Templeman, one of the real movers and shakers in this country’s publishing. As founding director of the Fremantle Arts Centre in 1972, Templeman established a press that brought to the fore some of Australia’s most interesting writers, including Elizabeth Jolley, Nicholas Hasluck, A.B. Facey and Sally Morgan.

Then, in 1990, Templeman took up a key position at the National Library of Australia. His brief was to develop its publishing capacity, which he did with aplomb for seven years. Soon after that came Molonglo Press, concentrating on poetry and fine art publication, and, in 1999, Pandanus. Since then Pandanus has produced material ranging over a multitude of cultures and academic disciplines, embracing biography, memoirs and fiction. Now, with the Sullivan’s Creek imprint, it’s pushing further in that direction, spotlighting new writers mainly from the Canberra region.

Of the two whose work is reviewed here, Jan Borrie has published with Templeman before. Her first novel, Verge, appeared in 1998 as one of Molonglo Press’s exquisite pocket editions. Unbroken Blue, a more ambitious undertaking, gives greater scope for her talents. The narrative, held within a string of brief, tantalising, yet lyrical chapters encompassing multiple perspectives, is essentially her version of the Pleiades myth, brushed off, polished up and shaped with her poet’s touch anew.

In Borrie’s retelling, the focus is less on the lost seventh sister, and more on her daughter, who is abandoned when her mother disappears. Annabella’s plight is to be bounced from one aunt to another, and in each of their homes she’s subjected to a form of neglect or abuse. Still, at the core of Annabella’s misery is the initial desertion. She cannot, will not, accept that the mother who loved her would simply walk away and leave her to her fate.

Borrie is an intriguing writer, with an almost instinctual feel for the harmonious disposition of the elements comprising her art. All the pieces fit. And though abandonment is often held to be the childhood experience with the greatest potential for damage, and there are some hideously raw moments for Annabella, Unbroken Blue is not a sob story—Borrie is too clear-eyed for that. That said, and despite the sharp concision of her language, the novel has a lovely, dreamlike quality, in keeping with its mythological resonances.

Nigel Featherstone’s Remnants is a more conventional offering. It is, like Borrie’s novel, a journey narrative. But while Unbroken Blue could be classed a Bildungsroman, examining poetically one girl’s passage from childhood to adulthood, Featherstone’s novel is a solid exploration of age. Moreover, in Remnants we find a finely honed perception of the social environment which, owing to its character, is approached only tangentially in the Borrie book.

Remnants opens with septuagenarian Mitchell Granville, a former Sydney barrister, knee-deep in loneliness. When his wife of many years died, he left the bustle of the seaside suburb of Manly, where they spent his retirement together, and repaired to the house he grew up in. A huge, cold, forbidding Blue Mountain edifice, Bellstay Green is as unlikely a place to overcome depression as you could find. And so it is that, in retreating to the womb of his childhood, Mitchell leaves himself open to some gremlins from his past.

For reasons that become clearer as the tale unwinds, Mitchell, outwardly the picture of unassailable rectitude, suddenly and secretly buys an airline ticket to Perth. There he locates the black sheep of a brother who has been kept at a continent’s distance throughout their respective adulthoods.

As you’d expect, Lindsay Granville is the antithesis of Mitchell. His physical state and circumstance proclaim his disdain for whatever his brother holds dear. He has no money of his own and no compunction in spending Mitchell’s when at last they meet. His clothes are outrageous. He flouts with hilarity society’s injunction to age inconspicuously, and delights in taking the mickey out of those who don’t, Mitchell being top of his list.

Here’s where I settled into enjoying a comedy of manners, as this oddest of couples begin their trek back across the continent towards their childhood home, stopping at several points on the way. But Featherstone’s novel plumbs deeper than comedy, and by the end a more complex relationship between the two brothers has been revealed. Mitchell’s past transgressions are much harsher than either he or I supposed. Yet his complicity in Lindsay’s fall from grace is what he must swallow before he takes off on his final journey into the unknown.

I liked both these books a great deal. Each in its distinct way is written with sensitivity and skill. So thanks, Pandanus. May you and your authors thrive.  

Unbroken Blue, Jan Borrie. Pandanus Books, 2005. isbn 1 740 76129 4, rrp $29.95
Remnants, Nigel Featherstone. Pandanus Books, 2005, isbn 1 740 76130 8, rrp $29.95

Sara Dowse is a novelist, storywriter and essayist. Under her leadership the first women’s affairs section of the Prime Minister’s Department, established in 1974, became the Office of Women’s Affairs, now the Office of the Status of Women. She lives in Sydney.



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