Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Book Review - Lost Voices by Christopher Koch

Lost Voices by Christopher Koch

Sydney : Fourth Estate, 2012                                                     ISBN 9780732294632

Christopher Koch is arguably Australia's finest living novelist, and probably in the front rank of prose stylists ever produced in this country. Twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award, he is perhaps most famous for his book The year of living dangerously, which was made into a successful film.

There are themes that appear regularly throughout his writing, and Lost Voices deals with two of these. Koch is Tasmanian - his family were very early settlers (not convicts) - and his love of both the countryside and the towns of the Island State recur throughout his books, and take centre stage here. Koch is also fascinated by the idea of evil, and the thin threads on which society hangs: a theme he explored in The Doubleman, and one he covers again here.

Lost Voices is a book of two stories, concerning the one family, that cross one hundred years of Tasmania's history. We are first introduced not to a person, but to a suburb of Hobart in the early '50s. Koch's descriptive writing is of the highest quality, never overwrought or baroque, and yet he manages to capture a scene perfectly and transport the reader exactly to a particular time and place.

We then meet the teenage Hugh Dixon who, by a deft plot device, soon meets his estranged Great-Uncle Walter, lawyer and aesthete. Hugh and Walter soon realize they both have an interest in art, which sparks a friendship. Hugh also meets Walter's secretary/housekeeper, Mrs. Moran. Bob Hall, Hugh's schoolboy friend who also is interested in drawing, enters and leaves Hugh's world, as Bob runs away from his abusive father and ends up in Reform School.

On his weekly visits to Walter, Hugh is introduced to art and the greater world, and some family secrets. Walter lives in the Dixon's ancestral home, Leyburn Farm, and Hugh is told that the famous bushrangers Wilson and Dalton had raided there in the previous century, and that Walter's father Martin (Hugh's Great Grandfather), had for a time run off with their gang.

We are then transported, in the middle section of the book, back to 1854 where we meet Dalton and Griffin as they escape Port Arthur, and make their way back to Nowhere Valley, where Wilson has his hideout. Dalton is Wilson's Lieutenant, and Griffin importunes Dalton to be allowed to join the gang. On their way back to the Valley they raid Leyburn Farm, where we are shown that Dalton is a gentleman highwayman, and we also see that Griffin is something less than that. It is here that Martin approaches Dalton with the idea that he ride off with them to Nowhere Valley to write the story of Wilson for the Hobart newspaper. Dalton agrees.

The journeys through the Tasmanian bush that are undertaken in this section of the book are evoked with genius by Koch - the sights, smells, sounds, weather are all brought to the reader with immediacy and delicacy and thoughtfulness to the story - we see the country through Martin's eyes, so descriptions of the flora don't include the names of the plants, as Martin would not know them. The grandeur of Tasmania grips the reader through these pages.

When Martin and Griffin arrive in Nowhere Valley, they are greeted with a situation they weren't expecting. Far from being the camp of outlaws bent on rapine and pillage, Nowhere Valley is a village of people working on the land, dedicated to a better life. Wilson is the undisputed and charismatic leader of the community, who, with nods to More's Utopia, is trying to build a better society; spurning what has gone before in a bid to create happiness on Earth. As he describes to Martin, the raiding and stealing are only to gather what they can't make themselves, and is something Wilson hopes with time will no longer be needed. He also hopes - at least in public - that his iron-fisted rule will also fade away, although he expresses to Martin his doubts that human nature will make it so, pointing out that even More had envisaged a Prince ruling over society.

Martin is torn between his attraction to Wilson's ideals, and his realization that the reality of Nowhere Valley falls far short of them. For a time he considers staying in the Valley and becoming a follower of Wilson.

Griffin has also spent time with Wilson. Dalton, and Wilson's mistress Frances, and to a certain extent Martin see evil in Griffin, but Wilson is fascinated by his Gnostic theories, and his apparent ability to speak with the world of the spirits. There is always the lingering doubt that Griffin's theories are little more than cover for his wish to engage in whatever acts he likes. He, along with some other cronies, chafe against the rule of the Community whereby only Wilson, Dalton and a few others go raiding down to civilization.

On one occasion when Wilson and Dalton are off raiding, Griffin and his men take their chance, raid the armoury, steal a young girl and head off. On Wilson's return, he, Dalton and Martin track Griffin to a remote farm, where Griffin has committed more outrages on the woman living there, after killing her husband (this after raping the girl stolen from the Community). After a gunfight, both Griffin and Wilson are dead (Griffin shot by Martin). This means the end of the Community, as it has been becoming clear to the reader that it was only the force of Wilson's personality that kept it together. Even his mistress Frances knew that, and had expressed it to Martin. Wilson's dying words to Martin "keep faith with the hills", are a desperate plea that go unanswered.

We are then taken back to modernity, Hugh has left school, gone to art school with the help of Walter, and has his first job as an illustrator on the Hobart newspaper, while starting out on a career as an artist. He re-unites with his childhood friend Bob and gets him a job with Max Fell, a freelance artist and photographer he knows vaguely. Bob soon takes a dislike to Fell, who is revealed as a lecher. When one of the models used by Fell is found raped and murdered, Bob, who has just become engaged, is charged with the crime. Hugh entreats Walter to defend him, which he does, and draws an acquittal from the jury by implicating Fell in the murder.

Intertwined with this is Hugh's affair with Moira Moran, Walter's secretary - a widow approaching middle-age. While Moira knows that it is something fleeting, Hugh clings desperately to the idea that it is true love, and is devastated when the inevitable happens.

Again, Koch weaves his web in this section of the book with his descriptive powers - the scene where Hugh is painting of a portrait of Moira, which leads to the beginning of the affair, is masterful writing, as is his depiction of character in the form of Bob, Max and Walter.

The book ends with the death of Walter, who's invocation to Hugh "keep faith with the hills", binds the two stories together.

If you have never read any Koch you should, and Lost Voices would be a good place to start. With it's limpid description, vivid landscapes and gripping narratives, it's the work of a novelist in control of his craft.

Highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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