GREGORY DAY Archipelago of Souls. Reviewed by Annette Marfording
Post-traumatic stress is at the heart of Gregory Day’s lyrical and profound fourth novel.
Wesley Cress has spent the Second World War as a soldier under British command on the Greek island of Crete, home of the ancient Minoan civilisation. After his return to Australia he moves to windswept King Island in Bass Strait. The novel is structured so that the reader finds out about Wesley’s time in Crete and his new life on King Island in alternate chapters. This is a wonderful way to avoid filling the narrative with backstory and slowing the narrative flow. Instead, the reader is curious at the end of each chapter about what will happen next.
Day told an audience at the recent Byron Bay Writers Festival that Archipelago of Souls was inspired by one sentence in Antony Beevor’s book Crete: The battle and the resistance, in which Beevor wrote about the evacuation of British and Australian soldiers from Crete by sea, during which the British torpedoed their own ship, the Imperial, because it was unseaworthy. Unfortunately nobody ensured that the Imperial had been vacated, and several drunk Australian soldiers sleeping off their alcoholic fug perished as a result. This event becomes the core of Wes’s trauma, even though he himself was not on the ship. Thanks to the cunning of his Greek village host, he had missed the evacuation and was forced to stay on Crete, where he fought to survive among the victorious Germans and Italians roaming the island.
On King Island Wes reluctantly but slowly gets to know the local community, principally the postmaster’s son Lascelles, who is obsessed with memorialising and assisting returned soldiers, having missed the war on account of his age. Wes, however, is neither interested in being celebrated as a hero, nor in accepting the government’s land grants to ex-servicemen, nor in socialising with fellow veterans. All Wes wants is to understand his demons, to find peace of mind and figure out how to keep on living. What facilitates his healing is young Leonie, whom he meets on King Island. Both share the experience of growing up without a mother since early childhood and, for different reasons, Leonie also has experienced trauma. They are two lost souls finding each other.
The following passage explains the novel’s title:
We undergo a perpetual scouring, a scrubbing and washing. Eventually it wears away not only our scent but our flesh. We are wind-whittled. Human sticks in a shallow strait. Until … they lower us into the ground, but even the soil that holds us will blow away eventually. When the sky truly will be scattered with an archipelago of souls.
The passage is an example of both the lyricism and profundity of this novel, reflecting the author’s parallel life as a composer of meaningful poetry and song.
As in his Mangowak trilogy, set in a fictional town on the Great Ocean Road, Day again shows his mastery in depicting landscape, plants, animals and people so vividly that the reader can not only see them, but smell them, feel them and hear them – both on Crete and on King Island:
I coasted down from the brow of the hill on the bike and walked the ribbed sand of the beach, with epic old testament rays in the cloudy sky and red-purple groundsel shrivelling and turning into fluffy seed pom-poms all around me. At the high-tide line muttonbirds, like rags of ash, marked my progress alone in the dark coat of haunting. Dead, bedraggled, exhausted muttonbirds.
Humour, so apparent in Day’s previous novels, is not absent in Archipelago of Souls. Wes has a deep connection with a donkey he names Simmo, and these scenes will make you laugh out loud and think of Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante. Other resonances with Don Quixote are evident in Wes’s travels across Crete, the people he meets there, the love story with Leonie, and the theme of deception.
In contrast to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which has a similar structure, Archipelago of Souls does not take the reader into the midst of war’s carnage. It does not need to; the consequences for Wes are all too clear.
Archipelago of Souls is a novel that I read as slowly as I could, not only to savour Day’s eloquence and skill in evoking his main characters, the villagers on Crete and King Island, and landscape, plants, and animals; not only to marvel at the moving, universal story he tells; not only to listen to the musicality and rhythm he creates with language, but also because I didn’t want it to end.
Gregory Day is a master storyteller and his novel asks powerful questions about family, love, trauma, morality, deception, life and its meaning and how we create identity in the face of a traumatic past. Archipelago of Souls should implant Gregory Day’s name firmly inside the Australian literary landscape.
Gregory Day Archipelago of Souls Picador 2015 PB 372pp $32.99
Annette Marfording is the author of Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors – including Gregory Day. The book (profits to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation) can be bought at lulu.com or from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.