Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Book Review - The island in the mind by Rodney Hall

The island in the mind by Rodney Hall

Sydney: Picador, 1997                                     ISBN 0330359894

Australia is a land of dreaming. The Aboriginal inhabitants of this country have had their dreaming songs for thousands of years, and although the European inhabitants have done much to wipe out Aboriginal culture since they arrived a little over 200 years ago, the dreaming has carried into the new arrivals - for such a "young" country in the European sense, there have been many attempts at myth-making, epic poetry and grand imaginative prose, art and music, all trying and failing to get to grips with this ancient landscape.

The island in the mind is one of the more unusual attempts to create a "backstory" to the European story of Australia, and Hall, in this set of three more-or-less interlocking stories has used his skill as a poet to sweep the reader away to the 17th century and into a world of princely courts, pirates and emperors, as the East and Terra Incognita begin to infest the European imagination.

The novel's three stories are all written as reflections on European attitudes to conquest, empire, and natives. The first section of the book, which revolves around the staging of an opera in a fictional kingdom to impress the young Louis XIV on a state visit, investigates heredity, the naked use of power, and the ability of the arts to expand human thought and horizons. Scarron, the King's composer and eminence grise of this section of the book, is low-born but the Kings favourite: a genius, but hated by all except the King. The opera is the first introduction to the reader of the idea of an island in the mind; with the story of the opera being reminiscent of King Lear. It's clear that Scarron longs for the island in the mind to be real, and compromises his own safety to try and find out all he can about Terra Incognita. The first section ends with Louis XIV arriving and taking over the kingdom by a coup de main. So some of the themes of the book are set in this first section: the European lust to discover new things, exploitation of people, the battle between money and honour (honour wins, just in this first section, but that changes further into the book), and the brutal truth of naked power.

The second section, focused around a young Venetian girl and an Aboriginal, who get sold to the King of Spain only to be kidnapped by the Sultan, takes us further into the island in the mind, literally. Yuramiru actually gets into Isabella's mind, and takes her across Australia in her dreams - through the desert country, the scrub country, the mountain country and down to the sea. She becomes connected to him and he to her. When they realise that the Sultan is going to kill Yuramiru to display his bones as a curio, he leaps off the ship to drown, after giving Isabella two of his teeth and getting her to promise to have them buried in his homeland. This section of the book delves into concepts of freedom and slavery, and the ability of some people to treat others as less than human.

The final section of The island in the mind follows the Godolphin boys - Richard snr, his son Richard jnr and their nephew/cousin Denzil as they travel through Asia to track down the legendary pirate Captain Shilling, to try to co-opt him to engage in privateering for their own cause. As they are dragged further and further east in their search, they not only become besotted with the tropics, but realise that all is not as it seems when it comes to Captain Shilling. In fact it is Shilling who has been hunting the Godolphins, and he finally gets his way when Richard snr is drugged and taken aboard his ship. It turns out that Shilling is more philosopher than pirate, and in a reaction to a world where the greed for money has taken over, he has chosen the path of honour, and searches out Terra Incognita under the pretence of discovery but, as the reader discovers at the end of the book, actually to return Yuramiru's teeth, after meeting Isabella in the Emperor's harem. This section of the  book shows us the reality of the European takeover of other countries, how greed and dishonesty are the rule when there are no moral or legal checks to behaviour. Shilling is a fascinating character, and in some respects a proxy for Australia itself - at first the descriptions of who he is and what he looks like vary widely, and when Richard Godolphin finally meets him he is an enigma - not at all a brutal privateer, but not above violence, a seeker, and a man who holds life cheaply. The final view Godolphin has of him is him waving as his ship is wrecked on the coast of Terra Incognita.

Until the end of the book Australia itself is not mentioned or described (the word Australia is not used at all throughout the book), and yet the idea of the land runs like a thread through the novel, drawing the narrative tighter and tighter until the final moment in the surf at the edge of the World. The longing of the Europeans for a pristine land to begin again or to see what Eden was like fights against the reality that Hall shows us of a land so unlike Europe, infinitely older and more reserved from human knowledge, containing a people with a society completely alien to European notions of property, rank or behaviour.

The island in the mind is a hard book book to describe - my 8 year old son asked me what I was reading when I was about half-way through and I realised that in many ways this is a book that defies description - Hall has interwoven huge questions about what it means to explore, discover and conquer into a narrative that glistens like a jewel - some of the descriptive prose sparkles like a raindrop in the sun. It is the prose that keeps dragging you through the book, even when you have no idea where Hall is taking you or how this book will end. It is a book that makes you think even as you enjoy turning the pages. He has truly made the island in the mind resonate, and you will be thinking about this book long after you put it down.

Highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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