Twelve raw and vivid loosely linked stories set in and around Sydney.
The title story is the unsettling tale of an inarticulate man whose wife is divorcing him and taking their five-year-old son. When Mavis Cranshaw hires the man to restore the verandah at Forby’s Rest, he’s unable to focus on the job, his desperation grows, he drinks too much, and self-destruction takes a ferocious turn. In “Groping Head,” Mavis’s nephew recalls, on the last day of her life, spending boyhood summers with her at the beach after his father died. He ponders a painting by his grandfather, a landscape artist, that shows his grandmother and his aunt Mavis as a child at the seaside. It’s the only known Southworth painting that depicts people, and it comes to shimmer with immortality. The sketchier “Inside an Ink Cloud” gives a memorable account of a shark attack on a young surfer, while “Landmarks” details a man’s recurring nightmare of the real tragedy of a young girl who drowned when her hair got caught in the filter of a pool. A bride-to-be is shopping for shoes in “Out Walking” when, outside, a body falls from the sky, “accompanied by a spray of glass shards and a single, baritone scream.” Her older friend Devlin is so unmoored he believes she should call off the wedding. He goes for a walk, gets lost, and meets his doom. “Light Sweet Crude” and “Alaska” both involve Jack, a blue-eyed blond who surfed for fun and fixed cars for a living. In the first story, she’s 22 and her affair with Riley, an older married man, leads to pregnancy and an escape from Australia to Alaska. The second story, from the point of view of her adoring younger sister 20 years later, details her last days before heading to Alaska.
Bennett’s sometimes unpolished but ravishing language, with his ability to animate lives within a landscape that dwarfs the human, makes for a memorable debut.