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Saturday, August 14th, 2004


Verandah People


A review by Georgie Lewis

There is a bird native to Australia called the lyrebird. Think of it as a "liar" bird, for it is a remarkable mimic, not only of other bird songs, but of the sounds of encroaching industry and destruction. It replicates with astonishing fidelity the sounds of its habitat slowly being sacrificed to commerce: the chop of an axe on wood, the buzz of a chainsaw, and the jangling hum of a cell phone ring. Time moves on, habitats change, and Australian lyrebirds record and reiterate. They say lyrebirds have sometimes preserved songs from ancient aboriginal corroborees.

In Jonathan Bennett's startling collection of stories, there is one called "Lyrebird," which is loosely inspired by a real event that happened in 1812 in western Sydney. A troop of British soldiers corralled a tribe of aboriginal men, women, and children, and in closing in on them forced them to launch themselves off a cliff. Grief and guilt still haunt many white Australians, and Bennett, in his collection, has captured this sense of remorse, isolation, and also entrapment. Although predominantly based in contemporary settings, one intuits a ghostly lament to Australia's dark past.

All of these stories are set in Bennettt's native Sydney and the beach and bush regions surrounding the city. He now lives in Ontario, and like other ex-patriot Australian writers (Peter Carey, Shirley Hazzard, Robert Hughes, etc.) he uses his distance to cast an objective eye on his motherland. He has learned that at times it takes leaving your homeland to articulate its characteristics, to remember some things that one takes for granted when living there. Australians can think of themselves as lyrebirds echoing British and American culture. However, once removed from Australia, its culture and living conditions become distinctive.

Even the sound of the place. Bennett has captured this beautifully (to my antipodean ears, at least). From "About Walking":

His verandah the overhang with its leaf-clogged gutter, the weary floorboards, the Australian wilderness picture-framed by vertical posts is among the last licks of this part of Sydney's sprawl. After it, there is nothing but blue haze, eucalypts, and heat waves for weeks. As he walks, around him is sudden noise. Bird calls. Then, just as suddenly, their lull, sonic endlessness. This is a country of edges and, for six years now, Devlin and Sue have lived on one of its precipices.

Bennett is sparse in his language, reflecting the laconic nature of the place; a place where to say too much is to expend energy something you just don't do in the heat. Yet like an artist with mere pen and paper, he creates fully-rounded figures with simple lines. A restless young surfer girl is pregnant to a narcissistic executive who loves her lean thighs but knows he mustn't persist in their affair. A geography teacher from the UK, who envies his sister-in-law her sons one day collapses from a claustrophobia brought on by the humidity and bustle of downtown Sydney. The aforementioned Devlin, a quiet, unassuming young man witnesses a tragic accident and goes mad from unexamined grief.

These stories are thick with misplaced allegiances: siblings who poignantly hero-worship their emotionally distant older brothers and sisters; an unfaithful husband whose pregnant wife daydreams on an ex-lover; and a loyal secretary, who dutifully lies to her boss's wife about his infidelities. There is also fragility. Heat makes the landscape brittle, and so, too, the nerves.

Bennett's characters encounter death, accident, or everyday betrayal. Some survive, but others snap. And others flee as far as Alaska and Vancouver. Unlike the Australian mythology of man pitted against the outback, Bennett's characters do not so much tackle the exterior; rather, their battles are interior. And without a language for their emotions, a beaten path to follow, the results can be tragic, for the internal terrain of these characters is as rough as the outback that surrounds them. And the outback is merciless; the sun is cruel and the earth is not fertile. When Devlin turns to the bush for solace he is left wretched.

Like a lyrebird, Bennett replicates his hometown, capturing the language, the character, the climate, and the culture with an insider's intimacy. Australia is indivisible from these stories, much like the south of the United States in Flannery O'Connor's stories, or the city and suburbs of Prague from Milan Kundera's work. To read the talented Bennett's work is to breathe in the eucalypts, hear the magpies warble, and occasionally flinch at a kind of rough justice.

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