Doom and Survival

I was totally unprepared for Vivienne Cleven’s second novel, Her Sister’s Eye (University of Queensland Press, 2002).

Cleven’s first novel, Bitin’ Back (UQP, 2001), was a genial farce. In describing it so, I do not wish to denigrate its inventiveness, much less to downplay to the fundamental seriousness of its concern for the difficulties that beset Indigenous people–indeed, any of us–in molding an identity in the modern world. But Cleven’s profound message lay under a cladding of outrageous humor and startling language that made the novel slip past your defenses in a spirit of delightful diversion.

Her Sister’s Eye is another matter. Cleven is still as serious as a heart attack, but the lightness of tone has vanished. The language is as startling in its originality, its idiosyncratic flavor, and its metaphor, but the crack of laughter has been replaced by the crack of a whip. I hesitate to wander down the path of hyperbole, but this book brought to mind the world of William Faulkner’s novels more often than anything else. The dense narrative, the temporal dislocations, the shifting points of view, and the bending of language to the experience of whichever character holds the stage of consciousness at any given moment left me slack-mouthed in surprise over and over again.

Set in a rural river town called Mundra, Her Sister’s Eye is the story of families in collision, of catastrophes of all sorts, and above all the injuries that those collisions inflict. At the book’s heart are two sisters, hinged together despite all their differences. Murilla Salte is a large, dark, serious, no-nonsense, pragmatic pillar of strength and determination who occupies a pivotal space between black and white in the town. Her younger sister Sofie is white-haired at the age of twenty-eight, but her mind is that of a child, capable of intense emotional attachments but bereft of any logic except that driven by those emotions.

The dynastic Drysdale family dominates the whitefella population of the town, or at least it did in years gone by. Now though, the family matriarch, Caroline, is an old woman, house-bound, cared for by Murilla, living more in her mind than in the family homestead. She incarnates the novel’s multi-layered, shifting chronology. She also incarnates Faulkner’s famous aphorism, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” She struggles with insults paid out years ago, and in response, Sofie’s innocent loyalty to her, “the old one,” is one of the major drivers of the novel’s action. Sofie tends to the cares of Caroline’s mind, as Murilla tends to her physical needs. And whereas Murilla tries to prevent Caroline from paying heeds to remembered insults, Sofie cannot help but to feel them herself. She reacts instinctively, not quite understanding what has gone wrong, but sure of her need to pay back when Caroline is incapable of vengeance.

Archie Corella is another linchpin of mystery and temporal dislocation, wandering in and out of the town and the lives of its citizens, always on the fringes, hard to locate both in space and time. Arriving in the first chapter seeking work, he is referred to the Drysdales, and briefly takes up as a gardener for them. He has a deep and somewhat mysterious bond of spiritual kinship with Sofie and a more pragmatic if embattled one with Murilla. His horrible physical disfigurement is an objective correlative of sorts with Sofie’s damaged psyche. For certain, both of them are somehow bound to the river that runs through the town and as a focal point through the book’s narrative.

The minor characters in the novel, the Drysdale men, the “Red Rose” ladies of the town, social matriarchs against whom Caroline and Sofie rage, bring a bit of Cleven’s caustic wit into play. But they are all so toxic in themselves that it is hard to really laugh at them.

The weakest strand in the novel is embodied in the characters of Doris and Nana. Doris wants to understand the history of the town; old Nana is reluctant at first to reveal it, but eventually gives in and recounts large slabs of the backstory that begins to explain who the main characters really are, and how their histories are the history of the town’s hatreds and misery. These sections of the novel struck me as slightly false. They are like the speeches offered at the beginning of a Shakespearean play that set the scene and name the players, but that lack the drama and the presentation or action (rather than bald retelling) that should form the core of the action. However, having deployed this narrative intrusion to unlock some of the secrets of the past, Cleven lets the action play itself out in a satisfying and truly dramatic conclusion.

Her Sister’s Eye is a story of doom (or fate) and survival: the two sides of the human condition. The Drysdales and the Red Rose ladies are trapped in a mean, harsh environment, dusty on the one hand, dominated by the dangerous and implacable waters of the river on the other. They live on the land, in the country, without truly inhabiting it. The Indigenous people, the Saltes, the Gees, Doris and Nana, are denizens: they belong in this land, but their proper place has been usurped. They cling to their country, but like Murilla’s ramshackle home, they are in constant danger of being bulldozed out of the way. Ultimately their fundamental connection allows them to survive, and like Sofie’s mysterious ability to navigate the hazards of the river, to hold their own, however miserably, in the face of danger and brutality.

I would have said that Bitin’ Back established Vivienne Cleven as a major force to be reckoned with in contemporary Australian, Aboriginal, and Queenslander fiction. But I would have been wrong by half. Her Sister’s Eye takes Cleven straight to the top.

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