I loved Victorian writer, Cate Kennedy’s, short story collection, Dark Roots, so I was keen to read her debut novel. Cate’s short stories exhibit a wry eye for the minutiae of human flaws. This skill is deftly at play in The World Beneath which was published in 2010.
The story is told from three points of view. Rich and Sandy are an estranged mid-forties couple who met on the Franklin River Blockade in 1983. This was the zenith of their lives – nothing has come close since. As Sandy says; ‘What do you do when you’ve experienced that? What do you do for the rest of your life?’ Mid-life meltdown here we come.
Sophie, their daughter, is an angry teenager searching for the father she has never known. Rich roared off in his Kombi when she was a baby. Brought up on tales of the blockade, Sophie is deeply cynical. Her unflinching gaze tarnishes even this hallowed moment.
Wanting to bond with Sophie, Rich induces her to go on a six day walk in Tasmania. On arrival, he is insulted to find the wilderness pre-packaged for a too-large audience. Tension builds as Rich’s desire to impress Sophie with a ‘real’ experience drives him into risky behaviour.
Kennedy gleefully skewers Sandy’s political correctness. She envies the way her friend has her baby’s placenta swaddled to him in fabric from Rajasthan; ‘a very ancient tradition.’ If only she’d thought of that. Rich’s pretensions to ‘hipness’ are also cringe-inducing.
Anyone who has bushwalked will recognise the know-it-all walker. Wondering how many days of rain the park got? Unsure whether to boil the water? Mildly interested in birds? ‘Russell was your man.’ Having bushwalked in The Labyrinth myself and experienced the amazing frenzy of the ants, I also enjoyed these scenes.
Underneath the humour is a question that will resonate with many in Rich and Sandy’s age group; what does it mean to give up your freedom by having children? Whose life has more meaning, Rich’s or Sandy’s? Rich has tripped around the world, but missed its significance. He wonders if, rather than an anchor, Sophie would have been ballast; something to steady him in life.
While there are no answers here for the mid-life crisis, there is plenty of fuel for reflection on relationships, delusion and family ties.
This is my eighth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.