Thursday, November 20, 2008

By Louis Nowra (Allen & Unwin $37.99)

This review by Taranaki writer David Hill first appeared in Canvas magazine in the Weekend Herald, Saturday 15 November.
Thanks to Herald Books Editor Linda Herrick for permission to feature the review on my blog.

Ice is one of those Russian Doll novels, a story within a story within ... etc, etc.
Sydney writer Louis Nowra outlines the obsession of Rowan, a young 21st century translator whose biographer wife lies in a coma after a grotesque assault, and who hopes to restore and remember her by immersing himself in the subject she was studying. That subject is Malcolm McEacharn, an equally obsessed entrepreneur who astounds mid-Victorian Sydney by towing an Antarctic iceberg, "a white pyramid, a massive, lustrous, uncut diamond", into the harbour, where it melts to reveal the frozen, shoeless body of a 20-year-old sailor.

So: two twining narratives, both suffused with loss and monomania. In prose studded with metaphor, dripping with adjectives and sometimes glazed with import, Nowra tells McEacharn's story - from his marriage to the translucent Ann through his increasingly frantic and bizarre attempts to preserve her memory and image, via words, whores and waxworks.

On the way, there is his fascination with the new-fangled railways, his Argentinian disaster and Antarctic aspirations, his refrigeration enterprise, his witnessing an Aboriginal battle and new hobby of bottling foetuses, his rise to become Lord Mayor and Asian capitalist. Ice, in a variety of forms, affects the plot: on Circular Quay, in brandy and sorbets, in women's complexions, in the drug luridly linked to Beatrice's fate.

The book is a cram of technicolour scenes - Venetian glass and crimson wallpaper in a colonial dining room; the explosion of ghostly blue marsh gas in a swampy hollow; a dinner with multi-chinned, yellow-toothed Queen Victoria.

Nowra wears his research flamboyantly. You get the feeling he doesn't miss out a detail. (Find out why Australian girls used to hurl emu eggs at the wall, and how early 20th century Japan simulated battle conditions in Manchuria.)
You get another feeling that the book might have benefited if he had missed out a number. It's a lush, gaudy pageant of a novel, unabashedly over-stuffed in every way. IceSwitch off your disbelief and enjoy the wallow.

No comments: