The Australian landscape is much traversed in our national imagination, yet rarely entirely comfortably. For the 85 per cent of Australians living within 50 kilometres of the coast, the continent that lies at our backs that is emptier, hotter, and remains haunted by the circumstance of its possession. Consequentially, the country sometimes grapples with the outback like a builder’s apprentice pours concrete; first in uncertain splashes and then in a great ameliorating spill, hoping to create a blank slab, a literal terra nullius onto which to roll suburbia across.
Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor Point is determined to go beneath this impulse for blankness to deliver a rich human story drawn from this country’s fissure points. Set in the dry farming country of western Victoria, the novel opens with ten-year-old Laura, who is nursing her face after being struck by her German mother because she has dropped and smashed a freshly-fired piece of pottery. Kath’s anger at her daughter dissipates into disillusion as she realises that her husband Bruce sees her stoneware merely as a hobby, a distraction from the work needed by a farm and children. Then, on a trip to the rain-swollen creek to retrieve clay from its banks, Kath does not return.
Her disappearance makes Laura responsible for the care of her five-year-old sister Vik. Bruce, as a wild distraction from his grief, also enlists Laura into clearing the scrubby portions of the property until there remains little but large trees and stubble. A stoic girl, Laura holds a secret that haunts her in mottled cursive from the postbox. She finds an ally in Joseph, the son of a tracker involved in the unsuccessful search for Laura’s mother, who represents a relation to country closer to love than to ownership. Joseph points to the marks on a large tree as evidence that his ancestors made canoes, baskets and huts from its bark. ‘They were here,’ he says. ‘The trees are proof.’ Likewise, Laura glimpses Joseph’s father Donald looking up into the ‘darkening hills the way that Bruce looked at her mother sometimes, when things were good.’
This depth of attachment is mirrored in another deep mediation on loss, Rachel Perkins’ film One Night the Moon (2001). When a girl goes missing from a remote property in 1930s, her father (played by singer-songwriter Paul Kelly) refuses to allow an Aboriginal tracker (Kelton Pell) to take part in the search, with tragic consequences. Their duelling conceptions of land is essayed in the song ‘This Land Is Mine’, with its interlocking refrain ‘This land is mine … This land owns me’.
Anchor Point is less concerned with direct racism, but its attention to the land is unwavering. The yet-to-be-cleared scrub is described as ‘silver-green and mauve…[a] living tapestry of leaves,’ in contrast to their neighbours’ ‘champagne coloured paddock…and expanse of hessian squares.’ The slightly heightened nature of much Anchor Point’s language is entirely in the service of the novel’s themes, structure and plot. There are no over-elaborated images that serve only to call attention to their beauty while the narrative hops sideways like a three-legged dog.
Anchor Point’s allegories ache with disappointment, grief and the numbness of coping. Letters are sent but never read. A dead lamb is skinned to fool a grieving mother into feeding an orphan. The clay nest of a swallow – an introduced species – is abandoned after being disturbed.
The novel’s most evocative image lies at its centre:
‘Laura wanted to believe that the line, a wound in the earth, would prevent the flames from coming too close. But she knew that in order to work, the line had to be connected to a safe place, an anchor point, somewhere fireproof. An escape.’
The small irony of an inland anchor reminded me of Bea Maddock’s graphical circumnavigation of the entire coast of Tasmania in her work Terra Spiritus (1993-1998). Across 51 panels, Maddock renders the coast of her home island in shades of fiery ochre, seen as if she was sitting just a ways out from the coast in a small boat. The indigenous names for country are displayed in a gentle cursive script above the print of their European equivalents. When so little of indigenous culture is retained on the island, the mere act of naming is one of both recognition and recovery.
Similarly, Anchor Point goes unblinkingly into harsh terrain and argues that what has been here before can help us again. It does so with an astute vividness that you are unlikely to encounter from any other Australian literary debut this year.