Book review: Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele

It is rare that I read a general fiction novel set in rural Australia. I thought I better spread my wings a little, so here’s my review of Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele.

“When Tamara Slender disappears from an isolated property in Western NSW in 1975, gossip runs wild with rumours she has run off with a local man, Roger Bryte.

Months later, Tamara’s teenage daughters, Nancy and Mary, realise they encountered Bryte in caves on their property the day before their mother disappeared. Despite their suspicions, their father refuses to involve the police, and the girl’s grief, fuelled by the town gossips and their father’s inaction, drives them apart.

In 2007 a stranger arrives at the farm seeking information about Roger Bryte. His questions give Nancy a reason to contact her estranged sister. The sisters are reunited, and their mother’s disappearance is finally solved when Mary returns to Tamarlin.”

My thoughts:

K. M. Steele has penned an intriguing novel of two sisters and the dark mystery that separates them. Return to Tamarlin is well-written, slow-paced and rich in sense of place. Steele’s rendering of a sheep farm in crisis as its owners battle drought and plague, along with the prejudices and gossip of a small country town are spot on. This social realism provides the perfect back drop for a story involving the disappearance of Nancy and Mary’s mother on the very day they decide to try to re-enact the disappearance of the schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock, at some caves on their property called the Limeholes. Two weeks earlier, another local disappears, a local the girls encounter when they visit the caves. Are the two disappearances connected? What is it about their mother and her past that troubles both her daughters, and causes one to fiercely defend their father, and the other to flee the farm for larger horizons?

Good characterisation and a well-crafted plot hold the story together and the various tensions within the family and in the local community are convincingly portrayed. Tragedy, loss, grief and belonging are the emotional themes underpinning Return to Tamarlin, themes many a reader will relate to. This novel will appeal to those who want to lose themselves in an Australian rural setting and re-visit Australia in the 1970s, with all of its social prejudices intact.

 

 

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose – book review

Heather Rose has produced a work of considerable finesse. The Museum of Modern Love sets a high bar for Australian literary fiction.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, winner of the 2017 Stella Prize. Read more of my reviews at https://isobelblackthorn.com/my-book-reviews/

 

 

“Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovíc in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.”

It is always a delight to read an intelligent book. In The Museum of Modern Love, it is as though the author caresses the intellect through exquisite prose; coaxing, inviting engagement. Rose has produced a deeply introspective, slow-paced book, one that will appeal to lovers of literature, rather than those seeking page-turning entertainment.

The primary setting is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the main characters observe a piece of performance art by the renowned Marina Abramovíc, in which the artist sits unflinchingly still, all day for seventy-five days. The object of Rose’ pen is therefore a real life and contemporary figure, Serbian-born Abramovíc, who has loose and controversial associations with Australia. The Museum of Modern Love is faction, a considered rendering of biography in fiction.

What commences as the audience observes ‘The Artist is Present’ is the delicate unfolding of backstory, petal by petal, first here, then there, until the essence of the narrative, a poignant and bruised heart, is revealed.

It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration.”

Rose is a masterful writer, her depictions of incidental characters sharply observant, yet her prose is always gentle, haunting. The Museum of Modern Love is a meditation, on art and creativity to a large extent, but above that on pain, physical and emotional pain, the anguish of loss and grief. Can themes of art and creativity rescue a narrative that strolls along in the doldrums of lingering despair? The answer is immediate: Yes. ‘The Artist is Present’ installation represents trauma on a grand and complex scale, the artwork a culmination of a lifetime of suffering, depicted in a retrospective piece on display in the museum upstairs. Abramovíc’s artistic and personal pain is juxtaposed with the ordinary pain of ordinary people, yet each time another sits on the vacant chair and locks gaze with the artist, whatever they are feeling is transformed, subtly perhaps, to become a part of this ever changing, yet remarkably unmoving, work of art.

The narrator of The Museum of Modern Love is deft, light, observant, forgiving. If there could be a point of criticism it would be the use of self consciousness, at times the narrator identifying as a disembodied entity, an angel, a muse, naturally omniscient, one given to addressing the reader directly. Some may deem the exploitation of this device unnecessary and intrusive. When it first appears, the reader may be forgiven for worrying that this voice may overpower the narrative, but thankfully it does not.

All fiction is contrivance, a pasting together of characters, settings, themes. When drawing on real people and real events, such pasting can appear awkward and stilted. The Museum of Modern Love is not one of those works. Evident in abundance is Heather Rose’ passion for her subject and deep empathy for her themes. It comes as no surprise that the work won The Stella Prize, 2017.