Australian novelists rock. Authors such as Tim Winton, Evie Wyld, and many others from down under share a certain grittiness combined with tenderness as they take an honest look at the helplessly dysfunctional nature of the human heart. With her first novel, following her 2008 short stories Dark Roots, Cate Kennedy firmly secures a place in that class.
The story revolves around a fractured family, an out-of-date subculture and an extinct Tasmanian species. Rich and Sandy, two idealistic young adults, fall in love during the 1980s as they fight side by side to save the Franklin River in Tasmania from a dam that would disrupt the ecological balance of the island's vast wilderness. So young, so undeveloped, so clueless about life in many ways, they form a bond that lasts 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 enters the picture, Rich comes flat up against his interpersonal shortcomings and runs 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. In Sandy's mind, her devotion to raising her daughter Sophie justifies everything about her way of life. But the fact is, she bears a deep grudge against Rich and his desertion, and her hippie persona is a reflection of how she had never really moved on. Sophie is now about to turn fifteen and is the one who maintains a sense of stability for her mom, and she longs to know the father she has never met.
When Rich resurfaces, and he and Sophie set off for a week-long hike for her birthday, the reader knows enough about the characters to suspect that extreme danger lies dead ahead. The slow build of suspense, the revealed personality fractures in each character, and the threatening weather of Tasmania work to suck the reader right into the vortex along with the lead characters.
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 destructively up tight, she lights up this tale with intensity. Her teenage irony and contempt for anything adult is perfectly created in the dialogue, and she is one bright spot of humor in this fairly dark tale. (Likewise, laughs are created when Sandy goes away on her yoga retreat - the New Age instructors and counselors get their fair share of mockery, and even Sandy can laugh at herself when she isn't freaking out.)
Contrary to the few editorial criticisms The World Beneath has received, including "lengthy stream-of-consciousness paragraphs" and a general lack of profundity, 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." When the Tasmanian tiger appeared at the tensest moment of the wilderness adventure, I realized I had been taken to a deeper mental and emotional place than I had expected and that either complete disaster or redemption was at hand. I have not read a more consummate book on the demands of parenthood and the gap between generations in quite a while. All in all, this is a great and gripping read, from the first sentence to the last.
This review is from the March 9, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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