August 2010

Arts & Letters

Strange beasts

By Geordie Williamson

Sonya’s Hartnett’s ‘Midnight Zoo’

Two boys enter a small town under cover of darkness, one of them carrying a baby in swaddling. It is Europe in wartime; even so, the village is more ruined than most, and wholly bereft of human presence. But when the children take refuge in a moonlit garden they discover a small zoo, really a glorified menagerie, housing a number of wild animals locked in cages, starving and thirsty.

Up until now, the tone of The Midnight Zoo, Sonya Hartnett’s latest novel and her eighteenth in 26 years, has been vaguely menacing. No description beyond the minimum; no context beyond scraps of detail. Still, the narrative has so far played the straight bat of traditional realism; the boys gaze upon the animals with a mixture of fascination and wariness, obedient to the rules of ordinary response. No one is as surprised as the reader when one of them, a lioness, suddenly addresses the visitors in their own tongue.

Breaking the novel’s frame this way is more than the clever flourish of a fabulist (like all true makers of fantasy, Hartnett always keeps reality on a tight leash). It is a radical gesture – a marriage of aesthetic and ethical impulses of the sort that can be found scattered throughout Hartnett’s fiction. It marks the juncture where strangeness intrudes into the daily round, where the familiar takes on an uncanny cast.

In this instance, a single imaginative swerve returns animals to their original role as messengers. In a time characterised by a severing of old links between man and animal, when industrial agriculture has rendered them no more than raw material for manufacturing processes, Hartnett reminds us that they were once magical, oracular, even sacrificial creatures: a crucial means by which we explained the world and understood ourselves.

The philosophical implications are not explicitly stated, of course. This is a book for younger readers, and every large idea must be laundered via narrative means. The garrulousness of the zoo’s inhabitants is primarily helpful in breaking the boys’ long solitude. For what becomes clear through their dialogue is that they are Roma, sole survivors of a massacre, the practical application of racial policies designed to expel whole peoples from the human community and its protective decencies.

Right from the outset of her precocious and often blessed career (a first novel published at 15; unlikely commercial success; awards attached to subsequent titles like iron filings to a magnet), Hartnett has been concerned with the way story can cut through the noise of time to reach some static-free truth.

Along the way she has unfailingly stood up for those uneasily situated in their particular hierarchy. Whether that be the long ladders of gender, tribe and class, or the small steps where siblings perch, her attention has been lavished on the bottom rung and the hidden kinship between those who occupy it.

To dip into Hartnett’s remarkable backlist, however – a catalogue of gothic horrors cloaked in prose so unerringly fine that the reader submits to the worst just to keep in earshot – is to confront the question of reputation’s limits. Though she is not unreasonably described by the critic Peter Craven as the finest Australian writer of her generation, Hartnett is primarily regarded an author for children and young people: genre fiction’s invisible force-field constrains full acceptance of her worth.

This may be one of those instances where a publisher’s niche-marketing efforts have proved too successful. Or young adult fiction may simply be a well-upholstered ghetto, too comfortable to leave. Perhaps residual snobbery on the part of critics, academics and the slender rump of common readers is to blame – for some, no doubt, her unashamedly lovely prose and sincere belief in the moral efficacy of narrative must seem laughably old-fashioned.

Like so many prejudices, disrespect for genre fiction has gone underground, without ceasing to bubble away. Many would disagree, pointing to the fact that this year’s winner of the Miles Franklin Award is a writer of crime fiction. But not all genres are born equal. And close inspection of Peter Temple’s Truth reveals a novel so compressed in style and elliptical in narrative terms that genre conventions cease to be the sole criteria by which it should be judged:

There was nothing else, a world stopped. Just the two of you, the smell of glove leather, of resin, of the salve, you were in a dance, hypnotised by each other. In the ring, time became elastic, it extended, contracted, extended. You felt alive in a way you never felt otherwise. There was a sense of order, there were rules, there was clear intent, ways and means, there was discipline and power. You felt little pain, your concentration on your opponent was total. He was your universe. He was you and you were him.

Note the well-honed ennui, the esoteric second-person, the prose clipped to a masculine closeness, the pliable sense of time. It is splendid, yes, but it is also modernism by proxy: Joyce’s and Woolf’s extreme experiments trickled down to the mainstream.

Now compare Temple’s prizewinner with Hartnett’s shortlisted novel, Butterfly (2009):

The bell clangs suddenly, a bomb that has been flying toward them in deathly silence for a long while. Across the green lawn girls stand and stretch. Plum and her friends gather their rubbish, tighten ponytails and adjust socks, sweep palms down the back of their dresses. “Don’t worry, Plummy,” Caroline says, as they drift in the direction of the classrooms and the end of the sweltering day. “I’ll come to your party, even if your brothers don’t. I can bring my new sleeping bag.”

Who, based on a reading of these slivers alone, would argue that of the two novels Hartnett’s is more savage? It is almost possible to take comfort in Temple’s depictions of violence, despite their ferocity. His conflicts are not only expected, they are required. It is brutality ritualised, bounded by rules as orderly as those of boxing – typical instances of male aggression, safely transformed into aesthetic act.

And yet the story of Plum, a 14-year-old girl paused on the threshold of adult knowledge, contains a very different sort of violence. Butterfly’s prose is impeccably groomed, as tidy and regular as the middle-class Melbourne milieu it describes. However the same power relations that govern Temple’s world operate here, too. Hartnett’s brilliance lies in her insight that it is not the kind of social structure that determines conflict but, rather, the fact that such structures exist. In her imagination, the same deforming forces are at work in a clique of schoolgirls as in a criminal gang.

The shocks delivered in Hartnett’s work come from exposing the violence in these unexpected places. In Butterfly, Plum practises a version of suburban voodoo on the peer group she circles as a charmless and unlovely satellite, stealing small tokens from each girl as a means of exerting some imaginary control over them. Their collective discovery of the theft leads to a punishment as atrocious as any physical torture:

Rachel and Susannah and Dash would leak the scandal slowly, like poisonous fumes from the ground; and part of Plum was morbidly interested to see it happen. In the classrooms she had watched as the story flowed like a tide from girl to girl, passed inside notes, whispered into ears. Watching, she had felt unusually and keenly alive, alive the way a knife is sharp, so the humiliation she was enduring was perfect, like the paring of skin from a hard apple.

Language and imagery such as this gesture toward the high-pitched ecstasies of Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, and it is to Hartnett’s credit that she holds the possibility of madness in tension until the final lines of what is her most poised, ambiguous and polished fiction to date.

Not that a fascination with the transgressive or grotesque lets down her earlier work. Often, and especially in those fictions directed mainly at younger readers, fantastic elements do service for things that are sensed but not wholly understood. This is one advantage that young adult fiction holds over its parent forms, and surely a reason why Hartnett cleaves to it: here, alone in contemporary literature, some areas remain off-limits.

Not out of delicacy, it should be said – Hartnett has at times dealt with murder, incest, abuse, infanticide; she is hip-deep in human evil – but because certain experiences are simply inaccessible. When Harper, the young narrator of her Depression-era novel Thursday’s Child (2000), witnesses the aftermath of her older sister’s rape, it is an inexplicable violation she is obliged to absorb:

Until that moment everything had been unfathomable and I’d been hopping with excitement, my kneecaps positively quivering. But when I saw the swollen eyes that turned to meet Mam’s and the dull glaze of a blow across my sister’s cheek the whole room tilted, I felt woozy with the horror.

Some events exceed even the most knowing children’s appreciation of the world’s darkness. And it is at this point, where the maps of childhood give out, that dragons are called for. In Thursday’s Child the scene after the rape sees Harper fall through a trapdoor, down into the dusty extension of an old mine shaft, which has been carved over the years by her half-wild brother, Tin. In that dusty underworld she becomes, at least for a time, an antipodean Ariadne, pursued by the flesh-devouring Minotaur.

Always, though, there is a return to the real. Fantasy is only ever a device to tune existing qualities or experiences to a wavelength the audience can hear. The residual strangeness of Hartnett’s work relies on finetuning the ordinary – names, for instance. Her novels are filled with people called Cydar, Speck, Anwell, Feather. There is a donkey called Flashfire, a dog named Applegrit: each odd tag like a thread of tinfoil in a bird’s dun nest.

Then there are the animals. Hartnett reserves both barrels of her prose for descriptions of horses, birds, fish and, especially, dogs. The astonishing hound of the eponymously named Surrender (2005) has “heavy bones, heavy ears, a timber tail, a gatepost skull”, but is “light as butter on his feet”; the brown bear trapped in the Mittel-European zoo has ears “like toppled teacups”; a wild boar trots on “dapper legs”, while a hunting pack on the scent earns a small poem:

The reach of their legs, the ears set back against narrow heads, the mouths open to expose red flesh and white fangs, traps of red and white laced with black. The dogs are predominantly black, as if colour would detract from their purpose or would make them gentler, more lovable creatures.

There is a hint of the heraldic about these dogs, as though they were pure wildness poured into bone and fur. Animals are bridges that link our muddled, hypocritical, timid human natures with something closer to the ground of being. Of course, it is children and young people who appreciate this link most keenly, who open up more readily for such creatures than they do for adults.

Again and again, Hartnett has explored the disequilibrium in a particular society or milieu, and invariably comes down on the side of animals – those breathing metaphors for courage, intuitive rather than intellectual understanding, freedom from constraint – and those who have learned best the lessons animals can teach. It is a secret of her success as a young person’s writer, and a symptom of her truncated eminence in grown-up literary circles.

A survey of her work suggests that it is pointless to specially plead on her account, to argue that she “transcends” genre, because she does no such thing. Rather, she inhabits her genre so fully – finds her personal sympathies and beliefs so fused with its temper and tone – that she brings it to a kind of perfection.

It makes no more sense to extricate Hartnett from her particular patch than it would to commission a psychological thriller from PG Wodehouse. In her hands, a ‘minor’ genre shows up the faults of the major: Hartnett’s version of truth stands in stubborn opposition to the elegant shuffling of opinions we call literature. She is an eternal teenager, gloriously trashing the teachers’ common room.

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.

@gamwilliamson

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