DAVID RAIN Volcano Street. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
Nostalgia casts a long shadow in this novel about small-town life and secrets.
Although we associate the word ‘nostalgia’ with a wistful longing for the past, the term was originally coined in the 1700s to describe a medical condition suffered by soldiers fighting on foreign shores. Derived from the Greek words nostos, ‘returning home’ and algos, meaning ‘pain’, nostalgia was a palpable sickness rather than a momentary forlornness. During the American Civil War, the deaths of 13 soldiers were attributed to nostalgia.
Author David Rain lives in London; a long way away from Mount Gambier, the home town he left behind when he was 17. In his second novel, Volcano Street, Rain writes about a place that’s not unlike Mount Gambier, with its lush greenery, its lakes and extinct volcano.
Reading the novel, I was reminded of the origins of the word nostalgia. This is a book in which the author’s nostalgia casts a long shadow, trailing back behind every word. While Volcano Street is a savage dismissal of his own youth, there’s a lingering sweetness about it that Rain can’t seem to escape.
Set in the early 1970s, Volcano Street takes place in Crater Lakes, an unremarkable town somewhere in South Australia – and the new home of half-sisters Skip and Marlo Wells. Their mother has been committed to a mental institution, and with nowhere else to go, Skip, 12, and Marlo, 16, are shipped off to live with their aunt and uncle, Noreen and Doug Puce.
From the moment they arrive, Skip and Marlo are outsiders in Crater Lakes. Skip gets into fist fights with boys at school, while Marlo, an aspiring writer, is distraught to discover her aunt and uncle have other plans for her. She’s put to work behind the counter at Uncle Doug’s hardware store, her dreams of heading off to university like her idol, Germaine Greer, dashed.
As the months in Crater Lakes pass, the sisters reluctantly settle into their new lives. Marlo comes to an arrangement with Howard Brooker, a drama teacher at Crater Lakes High School who promises to help her sit her exams … as long as she agrees to star alongside him in the Crater Lakes Players’ production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. With Marlo occupied by her studies, Skip spends her nights sneaking out to prowl the streets of Crater Lakes with Honza Novak, a boy from her class and her only friend. When a daring late night scheme goes wrong, Skip is rescued by a shadowy, Vincent Price-like figure, who disappears into the night before she has the chance to thank him.
Skip begins to realise that Crater Lakes has a secret in its past and she’s determined to uncover the truth the entire town is trying to hide – with or without her sister’s help.
Volcano Street isn’t the easiest novel to place. It’s a coming-of-age story, it’s a mystery novel, it’s a tale of redemption, a drama, a comedy – a novel that can’t seem to decide what it wants to be from one chapter to the next, so that it feels burdened with a restlessness that never allows its reader to settle into the story.
Skip forms the focal point of Volcano Street – a clever choice on Rain’s part, as she’s by far the finest thing about this novel. Wise and innocent at the same time, tomboyish Skip slowly reveals the chain of events which led to her and Marlo’s exile in Crater Lakes, while dealing with schoolyard bullies, sleazy bus driver Sandy Campbell, and the pains of being a 12-year-old girl.
However, in the second half of Volcano Street the novel’s direction suddenly shifts, the narrative moving away from Skip to a more general perspective. It’s at this point that the novel loses its hard-won cohesion.
While Skip, Marlo and a few other select characters are portrayed with a gentle touch, Rain isn’t so sympathetic towards many of the other native residents of Crater Lakes. He has a definite skill for creating grotesque, monstrous characters, like Sandy Campbell, with his leering eyes and barrage of lewd jokes, or smarmy, ineffectual Howard Brooker, who longs for a more cultured existence despite being hopelessly stuck in Crater Lakes. Not all of the novel’s characters are so successful. Aunt Noreen, for example, is constantly surrounded by an aura of chocolate-bar wrappers and cigarette smoke, her obesity emphasised again and again until it becomes ridiculous, even offensive. At his best, Rain’s characters invite comparison to those of Patrick White. At his worst, however, he has more in common with Roald Dahl.
There are fleeting glimpses of something special in Volcano Street. It’s in the little details, like the description of Crater Lakes’ most upstanding citizens, dressed in their Sunday best for the annual town dance as ‘not so much mutton dressed as lamb, but mutton dressed as mutton’. There are some spectacular turns of phrase scattered throughout the novel. Similarly, the moments in which Rain zooms out to describe the changing seasons or the transition from evening to twilight are nothing short of magical.
Flitting listlessly between bleak realism and misguided melodrama, Volcano Street never really manages to find its stride, resulting in a novel that’s bloated with unnecessary scenes and clumsy exposition. It’s a shame, because Volcano Street hints towards a still-raw pain, tinged with a begrudging tenderness. It’s a nostalgic novel in every sense of the word.
David Rain Volcano Street Atlantic Books 2014 PB 320pp $27.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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