December 2008 – January 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Vertigo: A Novella’ by Amanda Lohrey

By Meg Mundell

The idea of leaving carries a seductive charge: an implicit dare to abandon your old life and begin afresh. City-dwellers Anna and Luke, the protagonists of Amanda Lohrey's timely new book, feel something is missing. Worn down by doubt and pollution, unsettled by the dinner-party drone of renovations and share portfolios, the two thirty-somethings decide to leave the city. Seeking a sea change, they scout for a rural hideaway.

On one long drive, straying from the bitumen, they chance on the remote beachside settlement of Garra Nalla. It's perfect: no shops, no tourists, no macchiatos - just a landscape of unruly beauty, a scattering of neighbours and the broadband access the couple needs to run their small business. They set up home in an old weatherboard house. As the summer heat builds, Anna plots out a native garden and Luke, who initially can't tell a raven from a blackbird, develops a passion for birdwatching. Gradually they befriend the neighbours and learn the lore and atmosphere of this new place.

While they have escaped the city, the past proves harder to evade. Beneath the quiet rhythms of their new life lurks an unspoken grief, albeit one framed by tenderness and not despair. Luke becomes engrossed in a dusty book by a long-dead explorer, a man whose account of wandering the Promised Land is marred by deep sorrow. Anna opens her arms to a haunting presence that hovers just out of frame; at night she surfs the cable news channels, seeking connection with the outside world.

Despite the couple's dislocation and the legacy that shadows them, the danger that eventually strikes is an external one. Lohrey depicts its gathering violence vividly. She writes with a sure, deceptively light touch, gliding seamlessly from accounts of bird life to the locals' easy conversation, to the menace of what comes to pass. However, given the centrality of landscape to the story, it's a pity that the book's evocative images, by the Tasmanian artist Lorraine Biggs, are not given the scale they deserve.

The undercurrent of this pastoral tale is about people coming to terms with loss. Yet there is an alluring lightness to it, a generosity - the sense that we are resilient, that we can emerge from disaster profoundly changed, rather than irrevocably damaged.

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