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A Down-Under Vertigo

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In Amanda Lohrey’s recent novel Vertigo (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2008), the vertigo of Anna and Luke is a disabling panic that occurs whenever the past lunges forward into their lives, usually in the form of their still-born child who appears hauntingly on the periphery as “the boy.”  Hoping to escape, they move from the city to a remote Australian coastal settlement where they purchase a fix-up property and try to begin anew.  They garden, meet the neighbors, take up bird-watching, and buy a canoe for paddles around the lagoon.  But more than anything, they struggle to adjust to the ongoing drought that is affecting their region.  Luke buries himself in work, hobbies, and chores, while Anna becomes estranged and resentful. p.85.

At that moment she falls into a spiral of panic; it is as if she is encountering a stranger.  She finds she is looking at her husband in an almost impersonal way, as though at a figure in the landscape, or one of those birds he is always gazing at.  Perhaps that’s all any of them are, figures in a landscape.  In each era, new figures come, others go, but the land remains and their sense of ownership is an illusion, a mirage brought on by too many days in the hot sun.  So what is this pointless dance that they are engaged in, this dance where they whirl together in an endless circle, locked in the illusion that they are going somewhere, that what they do has meaning beyond their own day-to-day survival?  At any moment they could disappear from this place and nothing would change, nothing of consequence, so vast is the land and so small are they.  And the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo, a dizzying sense of disorientation, as if she is about to fall, but that when she falls she will be weightless.

Everything changes with the approach of a bushfire.  The locals utter hollow-sounding reassurances that the annual fires never reaches their settlement, but this one does.  Trees explode, a few nearby houses burn, fireballs start landing on their property, and the very air – filled with ash and embers – seems to be on fire.  Before they know it, they are cut off from escape and are only saved by luck when a passing firetruck hauls them out.  As they head to safety at the lagoon, “the side mirror on the truck begins to melt and buckle out of shape.”

Although the book makes no mention of W.G. Sebald, Lohrey’s Vertigo contains a number of Sebaldian touches so that it could easily be seen as a modest homage.  First, there is the very Sebaldian device of a parallel historical narrative.  In their new house, Luke find several trunks of old travel literature and he starts to read Sir Frederick Treve’s The Land that Is Desolate: An Account of a Tour in Palestine (1912), Treve’s attempt to find “meaningful consolation” after the death of a daughter.  Treves (1853- 1923), who was a British surgeon, is much better known for his book about his famous patient, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences.

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Then there are the ten embedded photographs by Lorraine Diggs.  By themselves, Digg’s tiny images are evocative of the key themes of the novel – the beautiful, harsh landscape, birds, the fire.  The images work well in small scale, but I’m not convinced that they add anything to Lohrey’s  taut descriptive text.  In fact, they feel a little gratuitous, anchoring Lohrey’s text unnecessarily.  Lohrey is a very visual writer and I’d love to see her abandon her occasional drive to be literary (the over-insistent bird symbolism, for example) and perhaps take on something non-fiction.  Her present-tense narrative of the fire is harrowing stuff.

By the way, I have found that an easy way to order books from Australia is through Readings.

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