‘Anchor Point’ by Alice Robinson

anchor point cover

I read this book in one sitting, finishing late at night, and am still reeling from it. In fact, I’ve actually been trying to write this review for a couple of weeks and have been struggling with it because the novel just encompasses so much. Anchor Point is a powerful story about how humans, both individually and as a society, relate to the land – how we connect with it, how we destroy it, and how the state of the environment exerts control over our lives whether we like it or not. But it’s also a very personal story of an individual woman, Laura, and her own connection to the sheep farm she grew up on, as well as her relationship with her family, her work, her lover. The whole story is also about climate change. I’m impressed at how Robinson wove all these elements together into a cohesive, almost seamless whole.

The impetus for the story is an unwanted letter. Laura’s mother, Kath, goes missing from their rural property in western Victoria during a terrible storm. After hours of searching the nearby bush and gully to no avail, Laura finds a note from her mother: Kath hasn’t disappeared, she has abandoned them. In her ten-year-old hurt and confusion, Laura burns the note and keeps it secret from her father and sister, for the next forty years.

Even though I found the whole letter-burning ordeal a little clichéd, the way that Laura deals with her grief, shame and guilt about her mother is really convincing. The character feels so real. I was constantly thinking ‘ahh, YES! That is exactly how a person would respond in that situation!’ even though her actions were complex and not always predictable. But, Robinson manages to convey Laura (and other character’s) inner feelings without being too explicit – Laura as a character ‘accumulates’ over the text, so that by the end I felt quite deeply whatever she was feeling.

That said, Robin also managed to sketch complex family dynamics in just a few lines. In one scene at toward the beginning of the book, Laura’s little sister Vik is begging Laura to open the mail, which mostly comprises condolence cards about the ‘death’ of Kath. Laura doesn’t want to as she knows another letter from her mother is in there, which of course she must hide to keep up her ruse, but Vik is stubborn, and Vik soon knocks the pile of envelopes everywhere. The concluding sentences of the scene highlight the tension between the sisters and how traumatised they both are – but also how they are too young to really articulate how they’ve been affected except through violence:

‘Don’t just sit there,’ Laura said. She tried to make her voice sound adult. ‘Gonna help me clean up or what’? Kath’s note was a blood-blister that Vik was pressing down on to burst.

Vik struck out at Laura with one bare foot, leaning back on her palms to get leverage. Laura turned, engulfed by the flood and rush of blood in her veins. She grabbed the small white foot and screwed her nails in.

‘You little bitch,’ she hissed. It was a word she had heard, but had never said out loud. Vik screamed, flailing, and shook Laura off.

Robinson’s descriptions of the farmland are really evocative too. Mostly, because she illustrates clearly how tied up with the land humans are for survival; not only do farmers need rain and sun to grow crops or stock to generate enough money to live on, but all people literally need farms so that we can eat. Robinson also shows how the land creates the person Laura is – Laura pretty much runs the farm from the age of 14 or so and the rhythm of the work – the fencing, the lambing, shooting flyblown sheep – as well as the beauty of the landscape have become a part of her. But the land is irreparably changed thanks to human interventions that have not considered the earth’s natural rhythms: bushfires increase in frequency and intensity, and when it rains, it pours. ‘The ground was hard as glass; rain did not soak, it ran. Floodwater where before there had been dust.’ The book is sensitive in that it acknowledges the complexity of how best to care for the environment: should we leave stands of gum trees on rural properties to protect endangered species, or should we clear them to protect the farmers’ houses they surround from bushfire? Do we prioritise humans or the land? How might we prioritise both?

The only aspect of Anchor Point that I wasn’t totally convinced by was the character of Luc, Laura’s long-term boyfriend who she meets at TAFE in Sydney. Luc is left-wing environmentalist, and much dramatic tension is created through the way Laura must mediate between her lover and her more pragmatic, sheep farming dad. However, Luc seemed a bit of a plot-device, there to represent a particular view of the environment, rather than a fully realised character. This isn’t a problem in itself, but he stuck out a bit since all the other characters were so well drawn.

Apart from that – amazing. Made me cry twice! I would not be surprised to see this nominated for the Stella Prize next year. Or any number of prizes!

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