There’s a version of Australia that showed up in a lot of films in the 1990s. Our filmmakers told the world we were lovable eccentrics with big hearts. Innocent and unpretentious folk, sometimes damaged by a dark event in the past. Australia was depicted as a land of characters, none of whom was especially credible, though we all knew that wasn’t the point. Critics started off describing this version of Australia as whimsical and quirky. Initially they used those words with affection. But after one too many tales of families or whole towns made up of endearing crazy people, critics offered the words with a sigh, then with exasperation. In any case, there was a shift, and more Australian films began to take on gravitas and breadth, with comedies as well as dramas exploring stories through the eyes of characters who seemed more three-dimensional, and like people we might know. A similar shift occurred with Australian fiction, in that writers seemed more relaxed about telling stories without resorting to caricatures.
You can still find oddball Australians in all sorts of successful stories, on television in Kath and Kim or Russell Coight’s All Aussie Adventures, in films like The Dish, and in writing by humorists like Kathy Lette or Kaz Cooke. Oddballs work well in comedy. In any other genre, I’d suggest too much whimsy and delayed development is a little tired.
So when Siddon Rock, the debut novel from Australian writer Glenda Guest, offers up a cast of outback eccentrics, many of whom come with extremely heavy baggage, it feels a bit hackneyed and thin. Having said that, Siddon Rock won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, and was long-listed for Miles Franklin Award, so the novel has found admirers.
Siddon Rock is a magic realist novel, which for me was partly a strength and partly its undoing. Glenda Guest’s intention was to explore the genre of magic realism, since that was the subject of her PhD thesis and her novel was borne of those studies. She adopts a slightly unorthodox structure, focusing on different characters in each chapter, which makes an interesting skeleton for her book, and tells her story in clear, assured prose. Her story takes place in the town of Siddon Rock from its beginnings to post World War Two.
Guest’s characters who are loosely bound together by the remoteness of their town and their unspoken understanding that they are all outcasts in one way or another. Elsewhere, it would raise eyebrows for a woman to walk the streets completely naked except for a gun and hat, as Macha does in Siddon Rock. And not just for a few days but on a regular basis. Here, she becomes part of the scenery. There’s not a well-adjusted individual in Siddon Rock, and frankly there are just too many of them.
The story takes second place to the many character studies, and to the genre, and the action contains random elements that seem to have been included to shock the reader rather than add to the tale. The characters who live in Siddon Rock seem, on occasion, like vessels that allow the author to include a token nod to indigenous myth or European spiritualism or post-traumatic stress, or to manipulate our emotions, and as a result it’s hard to care about them. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende and Peter Carey have all written characters that live in ways far from realistic and yet they feel believable, whole, and have emotional depth.
I know it’s frowned upon to be harsh on local authors and I understand why. I really do. It takes a year, minimum, to write a novel, so it’s not an activity any writer undertakes lightly. As well as time it takes courage, skill and discipline. It is good to support new writers, and it is good to support Australian fiction. And Glenda Guest can write beautiful, evocative sentences; she has an obvious and sincere affection for the Australian bush; and a keen eye for the details of action and speech that make one character stand out from another. From the short video interviews I have watched, she seems a warm and intelligent woman who is committed to being a writer. But I worry that Australian fiction is sometimes treated like a vulnerable child, shielded from harsh language, and told how special it is, when perhaps candid discussion of shortcomings might be more helpful, and less patronising.
I’m sure Glenda Guest will find an appreciative audience for her book, but, despite having respect for the author’s undertaking, I found Siddon Rock unsatisfying, and all too familiar.