MILES ALLINSON In Moonland. Reviewed by Ann Skea
The second novel from the author of Fever of Animals begins with a family mystery and explores the appeal – and consequences – of joining a cult.
‘Parents are only there to be memories for their children …’
Joe, who narrates the first part of this book, certainly seems to believe this. Not long after the birth of his daughter, at a time when his marriage is definitely about to end, he starts to think about his father, who had crashed his car and died when Joe was 17.
At the time, I don’t think any of us really believed he was trying to kill himself. What he was trying to do, was crash and claim the insurance. That was the sort of thing he would have done.
Joe remembers his father as a self-taught handyman, a perfectionist, a man who ‘hated authority’ – an unhappy man who had ‘a rage we all feared’. He also remembers an old photograph he found after his father died that showed him as a young man standing in front of an Indian temple ‘in a dirty orange robe’ and looking ‘extraordinarily happy’. Joe is intrigued by this image and curious to know what had turned his father from this smiling person into the troubled, lonely, and often angry man he became.
Joe’s mother tells him that his father had once belonged to an Indian ashram, but as she met him after he had left it and returned to Australia, she knew little about it. With his own life in turmoil, Joe decides to seek out his father’s old friends, some of whom had shared his experiences in India.
Joe is a likeable narrator whose rocky relationships with his own wife and growing daughter often distract him. He has meetings and telephone conversations with his father’s old friends, all of whom seem to lead somewhat unusual lives, but since they seem vague or reluctant to talk about the past, he finds no explanation for the change in his father. He does pick up threads, which lead him to do some internet and film research, and he discovers a good deal of information about the ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, where his father and some of these friends had lived for a few years:
There were people weeping in long lines. There were lots of semi-naked people with their hands in the air. There were men in pink jumpsuits with semi-automatic weapons. They were all wearing the same necklace my father had worn in the photograph, a set of wooden beads with a little image of the guru at one end. I read the words ‘Sex-Cult’ …
‘It says here they poisoned people, Mum.’
‘Oh yeah,’ she laughed, ‘but that was after your Dad’s time.’
Part I ends as Joe boards a flight to India. ‘What a fucking cliché,’ his now ex-wife says. ‘Do you even realise you’re having a midlife crisis?’
Part 2 jumps back in time and begins as Joe’s father, Vincent, arrives in India as a backpacker and almost accidentally ends up joining the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Ashram at 17 Koregoan Park in Puna. His experiences of life at the ashram – the daily rituals, the freedom from conventional restraints about sex and drugs, the ‘enlightenment intensives’ and ‘dynamic meditation’, and the potential, and sometimes real, violence of ‘therapy group’ sessions – all these are vividly described. All these, too, are based on the real-life workings of an ashram which was established by Bhagwan (known as Osho) in Puna in 1974. Vincent finds the charismatic guru’s presence hypnotic, as do most of the residents of the ashram, but his feelings are mixed:
He both wants and doesn’t want what these people seem to have; their energy, and freedom, and sexual openness. His natural instinct is to get to hell out. But out is hell. That’s exactly where he’s come from.
Part 2 ends when Vincent is sent away from the ashram, and Part 3 begins as Joe, now in India, meets Vincent’s old friend, Abhi, who shared Vincent’s experiences at the ashram and now lives in a run-down beachside ‘Paradise’ in Puna. Abhi takes over the narrative and through him we learn what happened to make them both leave the ashram, but he doesn’t reveal it all to Joe:
That was the agreement … So I knew the script pretty well. I half-believed it anyway, after all those years. I said my lines. I wasn’t bad. Your dad went home and met your mum and settled down, I told him. Your mum got pregnant. You were born. Life happened, I said.
Part 4 skips to the near future and to Joe’s now-adult daughter, Sylvie. Sylvie can don a ‘Skinsuit’ that allows her to have intimate contact, from a distance, with her partner, Harlow. She communicates with the internet via her watch, but it is monitored by the government and if she is offline for any length of time she is required to explain this. Phones, too, are monitored; armed soldiers patrol the roads; and police brutality is common. Joe, however, is avoiding this surveillance. He lives off the land, has adapted his phone to disguise his voice, and now runs ‘a caravan park for old people’ just outside the small town of Katamatite, a short distance from Melbourne.
Many of the residents, so he claimed, were members of organisations that were illegal. But Sylvie had been out there four years ago, and as far as she could tell, it was just old people sitting around smoking weed and playing computer games.
It is several years since Sylvie last saw Joe, but she is driving to Melbourne to see her mother, so she has decided to call on him. It turns out to be a very odd experience, but it brings her closer to her father, who is living in his very run-down old caravan park, but seems happy. In this strange setting, Sylvie comes to terms with her own pregnancy, about which, until then, she has told no-one. When she leaves, she glimpses Joe and the dusty park in her rear-view mirror: ‘Then the dirt track ended at last, and she turned left, onto the main road, and drove back towards the living.’
Clearly, Joe’s caravan park in Australia could be Moonland. But Moonland could be anywhere – in an Indian ashram; at Osho’s ashram/ranch in Oregon (where Abhi lived for a time); or in Abhi’s beachside home in Puna. It is a place of fragile hopes and dreams, a place distanced from the world.
In Moonland tells four stories linked by family connections. Each has a different central character, and each of these has a distinctive voice and personality. Miles Allinson handles this all very skilfully and draws you into his characters’ lives so well that you understand their doubts and certainties, share their experiences and feel their shifting emotions. Other characters people this book, too, and all of them turn out to be interesting individuals.
In Moonland is about life, family, and the search for happiness, but it is much more, too, as Allinson explores the complexity of human connections. It is unusual, fascinating, and very enjoyable.
Miles Allinson In Moonland Scribe 2021 PB 256pp $29.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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