NIGEL FEATHERSTONE The Beach Volcano. Reviewed by Walter Mason
In an exploration of modern Australian life, this novel lays bare the complexities at the heart of human relationships.
The great contradictions and betrayals of family life are the central concerns of Nigel Featherstone’s new novel, The Beach Volcano, and reading it we share some of the rawest emotions that surface in the swings between guilt and sanctimony that characterise relationships between parents, children and siblings. This book captures the gut-wrenching crises of loyalty and imposed love, and in doing so becomes utterly enthralling. The Beach Volcano is as much a crime thriller as a domestic drama, and Featherstone’s third and final book in a series of what he calls novellas (but which seem so much more substantial and complete than that) stands alone as something quite original, but still responding to some of the traditional concerns of Australian fiction.
Part of the thrill of this novel, on a purely readerly level, is recognising some of its locations (Launceston and Sydney – Featherstone writes place beautifully and completely without cliché) but also guessing at the provenance of some of its characters. Canning Albury is a washed up rock star who has managed to retain his cult cool. Long estranged from his wealthy Sydney family, he has found himself, and his art, in relative obscurity in Tasmania. The new-found sense of calm encourages him to go back to his family for the occasion of his father’s 80th birthday celebration.
The Beach Volcano details that celebration, from Canning’s arrival to his unexpected decision the day after the party. Throughout the book the author plays with our expectations and skilfully leads us into detours that never end as expected. There is a real sense of excitement as the story proceeds, a heightened suspense that is surprising in literary fiction. Featherstone’s skill as a writer seems to increase book by book, and this novel stands out as the absolute crowning achievement of his long-developed project.
Canning, prickly, failed and maddeningly un-pleasable in his own life, becomes the hero of the story, though occasionally he flirts on the edge of being unlikeable. Will he betray his parents, will he cause a scene, will he ruin it all, as he has done so often before? Canning’s presence is a source of frustration and anxiety for the wealthy but secretive family that has got along without him very well. He becomes the confessor for all the disparate and sad elements of this family that has skated close to scandal for generations. As the book develops, Canning becomes the object of hatred for his mother and sisters, and the catalyst for a micro-tragedy that brings fears and anger to a melting point.
Weerawa Hall, the family seat on the Harbour in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay, becomes a du Maurier-esque character on its own, possessed of hidden rooms, verandah floors and terraced levels of lawn leading down to the water that enable secret meetings and forbidden rituals. It is, for Canning, a lost shrine that represents the points of personal history and development that are made so starkly cinematic in the course of adolescence. Later in life, Canning, now reinvented and renamed as an ultra-hip post-punk muso, continues to seek some of that architectural reassurance in his antique home in Launceston, and also in more typical sites:
… when I was much older I had been finding solace in churches – the buildings, not the institutions. I could sit alone for hours and stare at the stained-glass windows and try to feel what faith might be like.
And while Canning fails to find faith in the course of this story, he does manage to find some other qualities. Love, principally, in an unconventional way, but also compassion and a strange species of familial loyalty. Verging on the sin of father hatred, he is intent on exposing the frauds of bourgeois existence, as he has been for all of his career. But part of the genius of The Beach Volcano, and part of its immensely readable charm, is in discovering just where that outrage ends up.
The family saga has been a rich theme in Australian literature. From the potboiling pleasures of Colleen McCullough through the middlebrow beauty of Sumner Locke Elliott into the high-literary explorations of Patrick White, the impotent patriarch and his warring children have provided a point of drama that seems oddly suited to our literary imagination. In this book Nigel Featherstone returns to the trope and wrenches it into the 21st century, filling it with figures whose concerns and personalities are not easily explained and never once stray into the expected. In this case it is the elderly father, the once very grand Vernon Albury, who is the most delicate and sensitive character, the one who, on final analysis, could be the most utterly destroyed by the cavalier, adolescent rebellion of his no-longer-youthful son. ‘More often than not my father’s voice was coloured by regret,’ says Canning as he almost cruelly considers his ultimate betrayal.
Featherstone’s clever inversions and playful trickery are part of what makes this a very satisfying read, and I was left with the violent image of the beach volcano of the title, a childish campsite trick of exploding fire that has deep significance for Canning and serves as a metaphor for the family’s own internal disquiet. Featherstone manages this potentially dangerous dabbling with symbolism immaculately, and uses his leitmotif in surprising ways. Surprising, too, is the journey of Canning the narrator, the listless 1980s musical narcissist whose artistic transience sees him alone and removed from his adoring fans, left with the humble thrill of being recognised by uni students on bushwalks and urged to sign random bits of paper. Canning’s own discovery of love and belonging open him up for the first time in adulthood to the vulnerabilities of his family, and the reader makes the same fresh discoveries along with him.
His frail, ailing mother, initially a monster, is slowly exposed in all her awful softness and emotional defencelessness, and the ageing son is forced to confront her mortality:
I didn’t expect her to look so buckled and broken. Seventy-nine was not so old, which was something only someone who was beginning to feel the full weight of his own years could say.
The Beach Volcano leaves us with no clear vanquished or victors. This is not soap opera, and the harbourside mansion is bereft of pantomime dramas. Everyone is allowed a moment of victory, and then of vacillation, and the occasional dip into meanness or bewilderment. The Albury family is not dying – it is built on a myth and perhaps was always dead at its centre. This novel is a testament to the wearying realisations of age and experience, and the unsatisfying truths of the complexities that lie at the heart of all human relationships. Beautifully written and exceedingly well-paced and plotted, it describes the destruction of animosities and a complex emotional world. From the faux-bravado of show business to the deceptive anonymity of provincial exile, the novel finds the balance somewhere in between, in moderately wealthy, patchily successful Sydney, where life proves just as exhausting. It is an exploration of modern Australian life in which, in the words of Canning’s mother, ‘We’re all free to stand … but the point is whether or not we’d rather sit down.’
Nigel Featherstone The Beach Volcano Blemish Books 2014 PB 160pp $24.95
Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (2010) and Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom (2013). You can visit his blog here.
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