This is a really beautiful book. It’s a slow burn, and the story is not so much plot driven as it is an extended and poetic meditation on origins, both in terms of family (ie. what we inherit from our parents, whether we can escape their influence or not), but also our evolutionary biological origins as humans – and the origins of life or existence itself. The Salamanders is published by Transit Lounge (who also published Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić, winner of this year’s Miles Franklin) so it was no surprise to find the writing was of high quality.
The main characters are Arthur and his adopted sister Rosie, who come from an extremely complicated blended family (multiple step siblings from different mothers/fathers, a central father-figure who is also an artist and a philanderer, and various parts of the family living in various parts of the world). Arthur lives in a hut on the Hawkesbury River and Rosie (who is Koori, but grew up for most part in England) comes to visit… the two spend time on the river and then head inland on a journey into the heart of Australia and themselves.
They collect a range of hitchhikers along the way and visit a bunch of different town and communities, but not a whole lot happens. Nevertheless, Lane’s language is incredibly beautiful, evoking not only the wonders of the landscape but the sense of strangeness and familiarity of ‘deep time’ as the characters seem to inhabit both a immanent present and an ancient, geological past. I found the reading experience quite profound. It was disorienting but also paradoxically anchoring. Here’s an example of Lane’s prose:
…light flattened the river, cliff and sky into bands of pigments, the colours swimming in an oily medium. Down river a sandstone shoulder nudged the water. The stone staggered to the water ten thousand years at a time, under split-second eucalyptus downstrokes. Egg boulders hatched, and out clambered light.
The escarpments began glowing, their blue shadows swimming out. The atmosphere was thicker here, as if they were pushing through consciousness. A land-long murmur pervaded the air, a pollen voice. Everything was listening. Lilies stretched to the horizon. One might walk over water all day here. A dragonfly became trapped in a corner of the windscreen, a monster on the distant palette of lily pads.
I didn’t mind at all that this story was slow moving rather than action packed, but sometimes I felt it relied a little on dialogue to move the plot along in the sections where something did need to be conveyed to the reader. Also, for the most part I loved the character of Rosie (she was strange and complicated) but occaisionally it felt as though her Aboriginal background was a sort of symbol for Arthur’s journey into the ‘ancient’. That said, for the most part, the emphasis on Rosie’s character was that she felt foreign in Australia and more at home in England, where her adopted father was, which I thought was interesting (especially because the father is not at all likeable).
I’m sure I’ll read this again…so much to think about. Although probably not for a while as I think like it will take me some time to process and digest the experience of reading it the first time (which is a good thing). This one hit me deep inside somewhere.