The World Beneath, Cate Kennedy, Grove/Atlantic, 2011, 342 pp
Australian novelists rock. A certain grittiness combined with tenderness and an honest look at the helplessly dysfunctional nature of the human heart show up in authors from down under such as Tim Winton, Evie Wyld and others I have read. Cate Kennedy is firmly in that class with her first novel.
The story in The World Beneath revolves around a fractured family, an out-of date subculture and an extinct Tasmanian species. Rich and Sandy, two idealistic young people, fell in love during the 1980s as they fought side by side to save the Franklin River in Tasmania from a dam that would have disrupted the ecological balance of the island’s vast wilderness. So young, so unformed, so clueless about life in many ways, they formed a bond that lasted ten years based purely on the shared exhilaration of that moment in time when it seemed their idealism had the power to change the world. When a child entered the picture, Rich came flat up against his interpersonal shortcomings and ran for his life, leaving Sandy to bear the consequences.
We have all known a Sandy in some form. She holds desperately to a New Age outlook, making do with little to no financial security, living as much as possible off the grid in a small town, bolstered by women friends of similar persuasions. Her devotion to raising her daughter Sophie justifies everything in her mind. The fact is, she bears such a deep grudge against Rich and his desertion that she has never really moved on. Sophie is now about to turn 15. She is the one who keeps it together for her mom, and longs to know this father she has never met. Rich has recently reconnected with Sophie and now is her chance.
By the time Rich and Sophie set off for a week long hike on Tasmanian trails, the reader knows enough about all three characters to suspect that extreme danger lies dead ahead. The slow build of suspense, the revealed personality fractures in these characters, and the threatening weather of Tasmania work to suck the reader right into the vortex along with Rich, Sophie and Sandy.
Sophie is the lynchpin and in the end the true hero of the story. Pierced, buried under Goth-style clothes and hair, frighteningly intelligent and competent but wound up almost to the point of annihilation, she lights up this tale with intensity. Her teenaged irony and contempt for anything adult is perfectly created in the dialogue and is one bright spot of humor in a fairly dark tale. Although when Sandy goes off for her yoga retreat while Rich and Sophie are on walk about, the New Age instructors and counselors get their fair share of mockery. Even Sandy can laugh at herself sometimes when she isn’t freaking out.
All in all, this is a great and gripping read, from the first sentence to the last. One review I read mentioned lengthy stream-of-consciousness paragraphs; another looked for more profundity. In fact, the writing is precise and assured, which is what you would expect from an author who has been called Australia’s Queen of the Short Story. It has been a while since I have read a more profound look at the gap between generations and the demands of parenthood. When the Tasmanian tiger shows up at the most tense moment of the whole wilderness adventure, I knew I had been taken even deeper than I realized and that either complete disaster or some form of redemption was at hand.
(The World Beneath was published in Australia in 2009 but is now available in paperback in the United States. You can request at copy at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)