Sunday, May 24, 2015

Damp secrets

The Service of Clouds, by Delia Falconer, takes its title from the epigraph from art critic John Ruskin in "Of Modern Landscape": "if a general and characteristic name were needed for modern landscape art, none better could be invented than 'the service of clouds'." I'm not really sure what that means, nor what significance it has as this novel's title. Perhaps the novel is meant to depict an interior landscape, but it is decidedly not a modern one.

It is a huge responsibility — one I rather dislike — to read a book pressed upon you by a friend who professes it to be among their favourites. This is not a book I would've picked up of my own accord. But once started, it's not one I would abandon, either — I was wholly interested to know how it would turn out.

In fact, at its very best, it calls to mind the magic and awe I felt when reading Richard Powers' The Goldbug Variations and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, two books I think of fondly.

The novel is, as advertised, "sumptuously poetic" and "seductively lyrical", but for my taste, excessively so. Many of the descriptions run on, and I would skip through them. Quite possibly because of this I have missed out on beauteous and nuanced observations of the human condition.
When I recounted the terrible winter of 1918, I could not find the words to tell him how Mrs Grudge, who had been widowed two years by the war, was found in her chicken shed, her cheek flattened against the faeces and pellets on the floor. I remembered how Mr Medlicottt, just weeks before his own loss, had returned to the pharmacy to give an account of the post-mortem. He had stood behind the doctor as his government-issue scalpel made a red line from the tip of her chin down to the sparse triangle of hair below her belly. Before the muscle and the inner organs were revealed he saw pale beads of fat which spilled and gleamed. The voluptuousness, he said, had surprised him. Inside her womb the doctor had found a lump of tissue attached to a damp hand of chestnut hair, which he pulled taut with one hand while he detached the tumour with his knife. Springing from her belly, the growth bobbed from his gloved fingers like a shrunken head. When it was bisected there were two crude teeth caught like see pearls at its centre. The doctor dropped the flesh and teeth and hair into a jar of spirits and took them to a sandstone building in the university on Parramatta Road, islanded by the traffic which made its way into the city form the west. All that day I was haunted by the thought of those damp secrets unwound on the wooden table.
What exactly is going on here? Something nefarious and sexual is implied here. Is it a baby, or a tumour? This is a fairly extreme example, but it demonstrates my overall impression of the novel. The language is cryptic, and the book wants to be thought clever — it's too clever to tell anything straight. It's like a poem that's deliberately ambiguous; it probably has something concrete to relate, but the more metaphor and symbol that can be packed in, the more important it sounds.

Perhaps my judgement is so harsh because I did not like the heroine or find her romances wholly believable. Eureka Jones is a capital "R" Romantic, but ultimately I found her reserved and passionless even (especially) when she professed her heartbreak. At times there are weirdly sexual references. Is this novel a meditation on love? It is not even the story of a romance. It is the self-indulgent musings of a silly young woman, one with her head in the clouds. One who's learned everything about love from vaguely suggestive poetry.

I liked this novel's opening, when it recounted the character's family histories. But it lost me when it spoke of love. I understand love and romance completely differently, in a much fuller, more passionate, more romantic way than poor stupid Eureka. She's found nothing.

The story is set in Australia in the years leading up to and just after the First World War, when a lot of nations and individuals grew up. The main love interest photographs clouds and is based on real-life Blue Mountains photographer Harry Phillips. Clouds are a key motif throughout the text, but it could just as easily have been rock formations, botanicals, or photographic emulsions.

Happy Antipodean
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