The beginning of a fantasy novel can be a hairy business. Here we are on a beach, in medias res, and the res involves people saying bonkers things like: ‘We’re plenty and we have business. We have been sent by our mams.’ Will this all make sense in retrospect, or is the author completely barking mad?
Still, we often have to do this as fantasy readers—read something weird, and summon the faith to carry on anyway, trusting all will be clear in time. So: on with things.
There’s some crunchy prose to chew through in Sea Hearts, especially early on. You order up your dinner, expecting some pleasant, pappy fare, and there arrives a tottering tower of desiccated crab claws, strewn with jags of kelp. It’s rather wonderful, this tower—when you turn it a fraction to the left, the light from the lamp inscribes a shape on the wall that seems to be a map to something you once knew, but have since forgotten. But do you really want to eat it for your dinner?
Oh (m)e of little faith.
It turns out I do want to eat this for my dinner—I do, I do. This is a book about the implacability of the intergenerational inheritance of suffering, and it is a masterful one. The instant the first domino of the plot falls, everything else is inevitable, irresistible, and gorgeous in its misery. In a hard, grey, surly fishing community, an unlikeable child is born, resembling a resented ancestor. Her family and community persecute her until her bitterness forges her in the very image of that ancestor. Her malice—heartbreakingly justified—sets events in motion that destroy an entire generation of the community.
It’s basically like one of those Russian novels where the grandeur of the narrative makes you love it when someone’s head gets cut off with a scythe. Which is to say, this storm is terrifying, but it’s glorious to watch it roll in.
Tim! (I’ve read so many of your books—can I call you Tim? No? Well, I’m going to ignore that, Tim.) You know, a woman in a writing workshop once complained that you always wrote the same book, and I got really shirty with her. But Tim, it wasn’t that she was wrong. It was that her tone implied the book you always write is crap. Nonsense! The book you always write is wonderful.
There is a decaying seaside town in Western Australia, where the splendour of the natural world taunts the town’s inhabitants with the spectacle of a transcendence just beyond reach. There is a boy, or boy-man, or man-man, who loves the sea, and who skirts the edges of the corruption and misery of the people around him. There is a girl, or girl-woman, or woman-woman, whom he loves or lusts after, and who is cruel to him, forcing him to confront the intrinsic sorrow of life. He must find a way to carry on.
How great is this book, Tim? The beauty! The pathos! The melancholy! I love this book. But there is no denying I have read it before. (Also, Tim, I can’t hold this in anymore. Why is it always a mean lady who breaks our hero’s faith? And why are sexy ladies always mean, in Winton-world? Far be it from me to say you are not entitled to your psychic wounds, Tim. But have you really never, ever met a sexy lady who was also nice?)
At the beginning of this book I get really excited: there is a paramedic speeding towards a harrowing scene in a suburban home. Tim, do you mean to say you wrote a different book? But wait! That was just the prologue. Here is the meat of the story: ‘I grew up in a weatherboard house in a mill town…during big autumn swells a salty vapour drifted up the valley.’ Oh, Tim.
But look here. This is a fabulous instance of the book you always write, Tim. How amazing are these descriptions of surfing? How perfect is weathered, gravely philosophising Sando – a grommet’s own fantasy of a seventies surf guru—and how pitiful the neediness in his heart? How great is this kid Loonie, Pikelet’s mate? They are each other’s truest friends, but their accord is so allergic to the language of emotion, to the slightest acknowledgement of weakness, that a single disappointment tears them apart forever. Is this not the very tragedy of stoic masculinity itself? You’re killing me, Tim.
Wait, something else is happening. Hey, it’s the mean lady, here at last! For a minute there I was worried she wasn’t coming. She’s older, thwarted, bitter – and she’s into what? This comes a bit out of left field, Tim, doesn’t it? Phwoar. What would Lockie Leonard say?
So here we are, Tim: we have an ambo who deals with breath, we have kids who play with breath in the water, then we have a woman with a breath-related fetish. But do these things really arise out of each other? Do they form an arc? Do they ask a question and ultimately answer it? I’m sorry, Tim, but I just don’t think they do. It’s like someone lined up an apple, an apple pie and a glass of apple juice on a shelf and said ‘This is a novel called Apple’. Well, no, it’s not—at least, not a really, really good one.
That is not to say that the apple, the pie and the juice are not delicious separately. I still see that writing workshop woman around on Facebook, Tim, and I will defend you forever.
It’s Lanagan for me! I love Winton’s miscellany of things to do with breath, but I don’t want it nearly as badly as I want Lanagan to get me on the ground and kick me in the heart again. I want that tower of empty crab claws in lieu of dinner – I want to see the storm devour the whole sky at once. Oh, kick me, Lanagan!
MEANJIN TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS 2013 WINNER!: Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan
BEN: The first thing you notice about this titanic, triple-judged final is the musing of judge David Mence, who notes that the battle is ‘David and Goliath’, but then goes on to claim that it is ‘a clash between a largely invisible woman and a highly visible man’. Can we trust a judge who so badly misconstrues the biblical tale of David and Goliath? For both David and Goliath were visible men, and neither of them was an invisible woman. So one must take his judgment with a grain of salt, particularly as he gives away ending of Sea Hearts, which is very annoying for those of us who were waiting for the movie. Nevertheless one admires the strength of Mence’s conviction, and his selection of Lanagan’s monster over Winton’s MechWarrior lent a satisfyingly Pacific Rim-esque feel to proceedings.
JESS: I watched Pacific Rim for the first time three nights ago and thank god I did otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand all of Mence’s references to kaijus and jaegars, and there’s nothing I loathe more than feeling both extremely stupid and pop culturally irrelevant.
BEN: On the other hand, Bethanie Blanchard went for Winton, the ponytailed prince of prose proving too powerful, his tactic of steeping his novel in the sea a risky one, but succeeding, which I think you’ll agree was an impressive achievement given that Lanagan was actually writing about women who turn into seals.
JESS: And who doesn’t love women who can turn into seals, other than the real human ladies of Rollrock? Anyway, at this point each of our finalists has a judge in their corner… which means our third judge Belinda Rule has the deciding vote.
Things began pretty well for Sea Hearts when Rule declared she wanted to eat it for her dinner, because apparently she has a real taste for intergenerational suffering and gorgeous misery.
But then our judge began referring to Lord Timothy of Winton rather informally as Tim and I thought, ‘ooh boy, I think these two might have a history’. At the very least Rule has admitted to stepping in to defend Winton’s honour at writing workshops, and it doesn’t get more passionate than that in the literary world. Also I get the feeling she wouldn’t mind being the first sexy-lady-who-is-also-nice to enter Winton’s world and change it for the better, and I respect that goal. I don’t think anyone would mind if one of his heroes happened to meet a sexy lady with a heart of gold, settled down, and lived a long and happy life sustainably farming prawns by the seaside somewhere in Western Australia while raising children with stupid bogan nicknames like Nugget, Ratbag, and Maggot.
But wait! Just when I was thinking Winton was a sure thing, BAM! It turns out Breath, while made up of three delicious apple-related things or something, wasn’t a tasty enough wordpie to win this year’s Tournament of Books. It seems our judge prefers a large helping of the aforementioned intergenerational suffering with a side of gorgeous misery, and after she’s done eating she’d like Lanagan to kick her in the heart a couple of times. A violent end to a violent competition, with one judge-booting champion left standing as a dramatic storm rolls in. Cue credits, and congratulations to Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts!