Jay Carmichael’s debut novel, ‘Ironbark’

By Sophie Quick
A poetic account of adolescent alienation and masculinity in rural Australia

From the earliest pages of Jay Carmichael’s poetic debut novel, Ironbark (Scribe; $27.99), it’s clear that something catastrophic has happened to the story’s central figure, Markus. His friend, Grayson, is dead – we don’t know how or why yet – and Markus, 18, is paralysed by loss. “Everything around him is living,” writes Carmichael “and he’s stagnant because of the knot in his belly.”

Markus lives in a remote corner of Victoria, near a small, fictional town called Narioka. He is acutely conscious of everything that’s living around him: his father and stepmother, his friends, the livestock and the native species of birds, plants and animals. The living things in this community are connected – their rhythms, moods and destinies – but, seen through the murky lens of Markus’s depression, their outlines are hazy. In the aftermath of tragedy, they move in and out of Markus’s view in an oppressive, roaring silence. When human characters speak, they talk in riddles or choke on their words. And there’s a further complication: Markus is attracted to men and hates himself for it.

Not much happens in this subtle, impressionistic novel about adolescent alienation and masculinity in rural Australia. Spanning three years in Markus’s life, it’s a novel of destructive silences. In scene after scene, Carmichael depicts chronic male reticence, self-sabotage and an atmosphere of hopeless obscurity. Here is Markus, stumbling through a charity football match, not long after the death of his friend:

The coach gives a pre-game speech: grit, determination, teamwork. An’ piss orf if yer not up fer it! The team, two by two, leave the shed and heads out onto the foggy field. The silence has a sound: hushed static, as if tuning in for signs of life. The fog means most can’t see the scratches running tracks up Markus’s arms or the callouses from the sewing needle criss-crossing his thighs. No doubt, someone caught sight of them back in the change room. None said a word.

As the narrative progresses, Carmichael adjusts the focus, bringing his story, characters and imagery into sharper, though never completely clear, view. When the details and context of Grayson’s death surface, it’s obvious that Markus will need to call on huge reserves of resilience for survival.

The reader, too, will need resilience. Carmichael has set out to paint a portrait of shame and desperation in small-town Australia, and is, at times, unbearably successful at this. Reading Ironbark sometimes feels like actually living through the wretched youth of another person in excruciating real time.

It’s a slow-burning novel – enigmatic and gloomy – but if you can tune in to Carmichael’s dreamy frequency, there are rewards. Carmichael builds up such a sense of lethargy and dread that when Markus smiles for the first time, on page 86, it feels like the heavens breaking. It’s a moment of sudden, astonishing relief – especially in contrast to an earlier scene in which Markus “turns the muscles in his face into the shape of an orange quarter”. (And what a grisly, unforgettable image of a depressed person’s smile.)

Images of pressure and release pervade the narrative, too. Markus’s community has suffered under drought, but retains the memory of a deluge, a few years prior, that filled the lake and flooded the town. With elegance and restraint, Carmichael weaves scenes of drought and flood through the drama of the intolerable, internalised pressure that is threatening to burst Markus apart. The conceit seems to wind its way right into Carmichael’s prose style. In one of the novel’s most stirring, climactic moments, Carmichael conveys Markus’s confused impulses in a kind of torrential stream of consciousness:

Men are repulsive. With their sex. With their hair. Their physicality. With their laughs and deep voices and motives and desires and kisses and hands, searching-seeking hands searching and seeking minds and fingers and tongues and lips and beards and stubble. Men.

In the final pages of Ironbark, the story gains a new energy and resonance. There’s a change in perspective and the beginning of a sense of calm, as Carmichael’s vision comes into its sharpest focus. In these pages, the finest of the novel, Carmichael paints an exquisitely tender portrait of doomed adolescent longing and love.

Sophie Quick

Sophie Quick is a Melbourne-based reviewer.

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