Brenton Doecke on That Untravelled World

Reflections on Ian Reid’s That Untravelled World 

[Prof. Brenton Doecke, launching the book at a national conference of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, Sydney 2012]

I’m very pleased to be invited to launch Ian Reid’s new historical novel, That Untravelled World. Ian and I go back a fair way – he supervised my PhD thesis, which was on Australian historical fiction. And, of course, you would all know him from his contributions to debates about English curriculum and pedagogy, most notably The Making of Literature, that wonderful little book published by AATE in the 1980s. But to enjoy this novel you don’t need to know any of that. By publishing this book, as well as The End of Longing, which came out in 2011, Ian has now established himself as a writer of historical fiction.

That Untravelled World gets you in in the same way that a detective story does. Beginning with the shy relationship between Harry Hopewell and Nellie Weston, we’re then confronted by Nellie’s disappearance, a puzzle that haunts most of the remaining narrative. We read on, hoping for an answer to this question, just as the novel plays with the dreams and aspirations of Harry Hopewell (you can probably sense the irony of his name). I won’t tell you how everything works out, as that would spoil your pleasure in the novel.

But there are also other pleasures, most notably the way the mystery of Nellie’s disappearance folds into an account of Australia prior to the First World War and then the between-the-wars period, and what can only be described as the poetic evocation of scenes around Perth and moments in Harry’s journey through life.

Let me quote, for example, from the description of he river journey that Harry takes each day to work:

‘Often, as the paddle steamer left the South Perth jetty behind, gathering pace and moving out into the channel beyond Mill Point, Harry would see that it was under playful escort: a pair of undulatory dolphins just a few yards away rose and arched and dived and rose again, as if in happy mimicry of the boat’s great wheel, their finny backs turning sleekly like serrated rotary discs. It seemed, at that stage, an omen of good fortune.’ (p.13)

But the story is hardly a story about good fortune. Instead, Harry’s story plays out against the background of world events that remain strangely remote from him. He wants to enlist at the start of World War One, but finds that he can’t because he is shortsighted. When we meet him again, it is to find him struggling to survive during the Great Depression, haunted by his memory of Nellie and the mystery of her disappearance, his sense of possibilities that remained unrealized.

At the end, you become conscious of the stories that have been woven into this larger narrative, the intertexual links with a range of other Australian narratives: Mawson’s tales of his adventures, Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate Strangers, Henry Lawson’s stories of hardship and mateship – until the final moment, when the story shifts into the first person, and you sense that Harry Hopewell, known for his ability to tell stories, to get people in because of his way with words, is – paradoxically – the hero of his own tale:

‘It’s not the life I’d imagined, thought Harry sleepily. This isn’t the Australia I thought I’d be living in. What came over the horizon in my direction wasn’t lucky, and some things haven’t turned out well for me. But I don’t need to fold inwards on myself and give up the ghost. I’d like to reach out to people. Elva said I have a flair for storytelling, and there are plenty of tales to tell. If I write well about things I’ve seen and done. Felt, desired, lost and found, it can be consonant with the experience of others because much of it, the good and the bad, touches on what has happened in the wide world. I’ll put my mind to it.’ (p.207)

The Australian historical novel has, rightly or wrongly, been associated with Australian nationalism, with stories about pioneering the land and other metanarratives that supposedly demonstrate the qualities of an Australian national identity. This novel alludes to those kinds of stories throughout – Gallipoli, the Great Depression, the stories of heroic individuals like Bert Hinkler – (‘Stories of dwindled hope, crushed ideals’ p.198). Yet Harry reaches the conclusion: ‘… it’s a reminder that there’s something random about national identity’.  (p.181)

This novel can’t be reduced to any simple message about Australian national identity, but the abiding memory that I’ve taken away from it is nonetheless one of how various myths of Australian nationhood are interwoven with our perceptions of life as we live it from day to day, never fully defining that experience but nonetheless shaping it in important ways. In this respect, That Untravelled World speaks directly to our contemporary situation and our ongoing struggles as a community to articulate values that we can all share. I heartily commend Ian’s novel to you.



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