The Far-Back Country by Kate Lyons
A wonderful evocation of all the extremes of the outback, overlaid with the dramas of trying to reconcile a difficult family life. For me the outback scenes were every bit as good as those of Tim Winton. They capture the desolate, deserted spaces but also bring to life the nature that lurks there; the sparse trees and the few animals, the strange noises in the dark.
This is a book primarily about family. Ray ran away from home as a teenager, leaving behind two older sisters, Tilda and Ursula, and a father who was always hard on him. Now twenty-seven years later Ursula is looking for Ray. Trying to make up for lost time, to fill in the gaps.
Ray has lived a harsh life since running away from home, convinced that his father’s violent streak lives in him as well. There is a brilliant description of the itinerant life he leads, moving from place to place working a a chef, a fencer or a labourer. “Breakfast, smoko, dinner, smoko. Tea, a beer then bed. Between these, long stretches of hot silence broken only by the shrill of the oven timer, the tick of the cooling roof. At night, the radio and his book of poems. In this way he parcelled time into pockets of ordinary meaning, gave himself a reason to move from one moment to the next.”
For much of the book we alternate between the lives of Ray and Ursula, as Ray continues to lead his itinerant life and Ursula pursues him, just slightly behind, almost within reach. The closer they get, the more the reader wills them to finally meet, to resolve many of those unspoken things from their past lives. There are secrets that are slow to emerge, unspoken for so long. Early on there is a body, and in the pockets are some of Ray’s papers, a few sparse possessions. But when Ursula comes, she cannot reconcile the small clothes and tiny shoes with the strapping lad who ran away. She looks for clues in what remains, and when finally she gets to see the body, she already knows it will not be Ray.
There are quiet moments of reflection, when Ray and Ursula are searching, reaching back to the memories of a long lost childhood. Most of all this is a book of family memories. “Old stories, borrowed stories, tall tales, urban myths, pub furphies, wild rumours gleaned from tabloid newspapers, all weaved seamlessly into the family history, spawning new and exotic forms of truth.” Having run away from home so young, Ray is plagued by uncertainty about what he heard from his father. “After a while, you stopped asking and he stopped telling , and it was as if he’d never been Sydney. As if those stories and the stories you’d told yourself about those stories had never happened.”
A brilliantly written novel, harsh and dry as the outback drought, but rich too with the real lives of people that have been made to struggle but are climbing out of the other side to what may become a better place.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99