DECEMBER 17, 2016
A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, I returned to my homeland, South Africa, for a three-week visit. I had been away for several years, and I was hungry to see again the wide horizons and to hear the lilt and clicks of Zulu. Only to my spouse did I confess that I had to go back, because I was there. My body stopped living in Africa 30 years ago, but part of me still exists in that humid town many thousands of miles away, a place where no tourists bother to go.
So we went, first as tourists to Cape Town, enjoying the gorgeous scenery and the power of the American dollar. But not until we flew north, away from the cosmopolitan city, and I saw the familiar deep-green indigenous bush, did a hand press against my chest. My accent grew thicker; I slipped out of my shoes to feel the prickle of kikuyu grass. I drank only local wine and strong black tea. I rushed outside when a lightening storm cracked open the night sky. And when I left, I hugged old friends as though I would take a part of them back with me to the United States.
But mixed in the days of my Afro-ecstasy were traces of what had sent me away: eyes hollow with hunger, white people living in gated communities, iron bars across the bedroom door, and maybe a gun in the nightstand. My stepsister warned us to keep the windows in our second-floor bedroom closed at all times. The monkeys were out of control, she said. One had smeared a pot of expensive anti-aging face cream on a neighbor’s bathroom mirror and swallowed a fistful of cholesterol pills.
Perhaps the invasion has something to do with the drought, which is two years old now. In a game reserve, we saw sapped trees and empty watering holes and a bony, dust-caked lion. We came upon a snub-nosed rhino, its horn sawn off by conservationists to protect it against poachers. My spouse flew home with a severe case of African tick-bite fever. Africa is cruel and complicated, and it’s not for sissies.
Neither is Australia, that continent of a similar latitude where David Francis sets Wedding Bush Road — his third novel and, I suspect, his most autobiographical. In it, Francis brings to life the same tension that awaited me in South Africa: the magnetic pull of the place where one grew up, and at the same time, a visceral need to escape from it.
After only a few pages, Francis plunges the reader into the Australia of searing sun and windswept grass, of birds big as folded tents crouching in trees, of cypresses that creak like ships in the night. It is a place of simmering anger, where men slug one another in seedy bars and where fires rage, their instigators unapologetic.
The protagonist of Wedding Bush Road, Los Angeles lawyer Daniel Rawson, flies to Melbourne days before Christmas. His mother has phoned from the family farm with an ominous slur in her voice, to say she needs him — words she has never spoken and which provoke in Daniel a sense of duty and dread. He cashes in his Qantas miles and drops plans for a romantic Christmas with his beautiful Venezuelan girlfriend, Isabel, and puts on hold the marriage proposal he intended to make before the end of the year.
When he arrives at the crumbling homestead, his mother, Ruthie, is far from “circling the drain,” as he’d suspected. She is wielding a broom and a flyswatter, thoroughly absorbed in chasing a possum over the picture rail in the dining room. After she has shooed the creature out, she starts on her next task: to irrigate ants from a cupboard. Ruthie is “flimsy as a thread,” with clear signs of a stroke, but she swats Daniel away when he tries to help her. Despite an unfaithful husband and a rickety body, she is still jaunty and biting, walking around in a nightgown tucked into a pair of boy’s jeans.
Ruthie has lured Daniel back for a particular purpose that unfolds during the course of the novel, and at no stage does she hesitate to manipulate and guilt-trip him for abandoning her seven years earlier. For his part, Daniel feels by turn her parent, her prodigal son, and her husband. Her real husband — Daniel’s father — is the gimpy, lecherous Earley, whom Ruthie claims is inbred and whom she kicked out when she caught him sleeping with another woman. “Ordered off his own land,” thinks Daniel, “for just wanting to be with a woman he could touch. If there’d only been one.”
But Daniel despises Earley, too, for his pathetic attempts at womanizing despite being “one good fall away from a wheelchair,” and for his failure to come to Ruthie’s aid when she was ill. More than anything, fueling his distaste is the suspicion that he has inherited his father’s sexual appetite, especially once his own is ignited by Sharen, Earley’s ex-girlfriend, who lives in the cottage on the farm.
Francis’s prose is urgent and at times breathless, packed with sense-rich descriptions. Poetic images swirl off the page as the reader inhabits the over-stimulated mind of Daniel, who is seriously jetlagged and sleep-deprived throughout his short stay, and even when half awake, plagued by bizarre dreams. He is also dogged by self-flagellation — not only for leaving his parents, but for leaving the whole community, for being “the one who got away.”
And yet he didn’t really get away — he’s haunted by where he came from.
The familiar cacophony of crickets. I try to remember why I don’t live here. The noise or all the silence. The whisper of horses moving through the grass. As if the past might fold in on itself and disappear.
These places that recur in my dreams as I sleep cupped with Isabel, holding onto her as if she’s a raft.
Daniel believes he is not just from there but of there. He suspects that the man he is in Los Angeles — the respectable lawyer who takes his girlfriend to fine restaurants and buys her the best Italian scarves — is a veneer that cracks as soon as he touches Australian soil. Indeed, he believes the “real” Daniel is ruled by animal cravings that can never be fully hidden. No matter what, he says, Australian dirt remains in the creases of his knees.
Ironically, his earthiness is some of his appeal to Isabel. “I need my craggy Australian,” she comments after a bad phone connection, “the one who’s attached to the earth.”
While this is Daniel’s story and Daniel’s dilemma, his love interests embody the choices he faces: the ethereal Isabel in California and the raunchy, newly discovered Sharen. These two women bring to life the novel’s central question: where is home, and to what extent does “home” dictate one’s very essence?
When we meet Isabel she is described as effortlessly alluring in a low-cut, “almost molten” dress. Daniel constantly thinks about her, and imagines how she’d cope on this run-down farm with his quirky parents. But despite interesting characteristics, she never quite lifts off the page. We learn of her own bizarre and difficult childhood and her superstitious grandmother, and she has a delightful attraction for all things New Age, but she remains vaguely insipid. Of the three women in this novel, she is the least interesting.
Then again, Sharen is tough competition. Before the novel begins, she has set fire to her own car in a self-destructive protest at an eviction notice from Daniel’s rebuffed father. She feeds the flames with the cottage’s Victorian furniture that belonged to Daniel’s dead grandmother — a gesture that foreshadows the end of a colonial era. Sharen smells of weed, while Isabel smells of rose water. Isabel is silken-skinned; at barely 40, Sharen’s cheeks are creased from sun and smoke, and her hair is a sun-bleached nest. What, one wonders, would urbane Daniel see in this barely literate woman? And yet Francis creates between them palpable chemistry, convincing the reader that her “unvarnished-ness,” her “Australian-ness,” her untethered sexuality, feed a deep need in him.
Most of the novel is from Daniel’s somewhat caustic point of view, but in an inspired move, Francis splices into the narration other voices — ones that are immediate, unfiltered, and strangely bracing. Most riveting is that of Reggie, Sharen’s mixed-race son. Reggie’s first monologue comes just at a point when the reader suspects the novel’s parameters have been set: Ruthie has just announced that Daniel is the reason she stays alive, arousing in him the inevitable mix of guilt and protectiveness. Then comes a fresh, feral voice in italics:
He don’t see me, just old ghost Ruthie floating through the dark, she hears me make my currawong sound, but she don’t look up, she got no need, she knows it’s Reggie Don sits up this windmill looking down on them. That son come all this way and now he’s flighty and indignant, but Ruthie, she’s the real one here.
Instantly the book’s scope widens. There is someone watching, someone with his own agenda and needs. Indeed Reggie may be the novel’s most original character. At one point, Daniel remarks that “everybody knows bloody everything,” but it is Reggie who seems omnipresent, slithering up from the top of the wardrobe, slipping through a crack in the ceiling, sleeping in trees and in the rafters, slinking along the flywire.
It is Reggie, too, who has a particular claim on this land that Daniel assumes will be his. In that first monologue, Reggie addresses Ruthie telepathically with the words, “You better remember what you promise me, old girl,” and with that, we know that things are not what they seem. What we thought was a story about home, attachment, and belonging, is quickly infused with themes of race, privilege, and the rights to land.
The land of this particular corner of Australia serves not just as scenery but as a brooding presence. Despite its expanse, it seems claustrophobic. It is a place full of creaks and sighs, where shadows mutate, where an incinerated car looms on a hillside like “the carcass of a gutted beast,” where death and hardship are integral, passed off “like so many handkerchiefs, laughed away with a weary acceptance.” As Daniel notes,
In L.A. risks are everywhere but somehow I feel safer there. Here there are no witnesses, just the mute regard of the trees, and the dull acceptance of the animals.
Like my corner of Africa, this piece of Australia is not for sissies. Wedding Bush Road envelopes us in a strange world where nothing can be taken for granted. This is a rich, beautifully textured novel, unforgettable in its setting and the people who live there. Along with Daniel, we blink in the white-hot sun, trying to soak it all in, and in the end, find ourselves reluctant to leave.