At the recent NatCon Convention for Speculative Fiction in Brisbane, a panel discussed the aesthetics and conventions of Australian Gothic. An area of contention was whether there is a genre of Australian Gothic given our country’s diamond-blue skies and landscapes rebounding heat. Gothic elements tend towards the dark and brooding, enclosed spaces and crumbling ruins. If we are to envisage a genre as truly Australian Gothic, writers need to escape the transplantation of European Gothic elements. What is there in our landscape that is terrifying?
In the past, when Australia was just newly invaded, the outback was the place of disquiet, a savage landscape where evil lurked and people could go missing to never return. Think Picnic at Hanging Rock. But with several generations settled in Australia, many non-Indigenous Australians have little reason left to fear the outback, and for some it is a place to relax and escape the tyranny of cities, such as the ecotourism camp that Shelley, the main character in Kirsten Tranter’s new novel, Hold, goes to mark the anniversary of her lover’s death.
Conrad dies in a surfing accident at Bronte three years before the story starts. In a prologue which is light-infused and redolent of sunscreen and Paddlepops, Tranter describes the liminal landscape of the beach: the sharp drop-off where paddling can turn dangerous in an instant. The sea’s currents are “stealthy hidden things that can tow you out in a matter of quick minutes, like magic, and leave you to swim as hard as you can while you remain in place.” As the Australian Gothic panel at NatCon identified, the beach can be an Australian Gothic landscape with its metaphors of liminality and dangerous depths. Tranter’s third novel covering the familiar ground of grief and loss, not only makes literary nods at the genre, such as The Yellow Wallpaper, but can be seen as part of the evolution of Australian Gothic.
The main story takes place almost exclusively within a terrace house that Shelley and her new partner David have renovated. Shelley’s life is domestic—she works as a book designer, but from home, and at times she can abandon her work and her clients be none the wiser. She does not live on her wages; she can blow half her commission on a velvet couch. Here we can see shades of traditional Female Gothic in an inner-Sydney suburban setting. She is a confined and kept woman; her studio is in the attic, and she is disempowered of decision-making within the home. David chose the colours and modern furniture, wielding his “mastery over space”. There is something unsettling about a historian who prefers clean functional lines at home.
Shelley reflects on her desire for possession: “the feeling of wanting to own something completely.” And it is not difficult to see how she is slowly becoming David’s possession. Their relationship is unequal; he is the ‘white knight’ who encourages her to ‘move on’ from her grief at Conrad’s death, because, ostensibly, he cares for her. Is this the new space for terror in our suburban lives—being subsumed into someone else’s life so entirely they feel authorised to demand how we process emotion?
Shelley finds a space, a room of her own within David’s house, which she keeps hidden from him and his teenaged daughter, Janie. Evoking fairytale motifs, this room is accessed through the back of the wardrobe, though Shelley struggles to see how it could fit within the building’s blueprint. If it weren’t for the fact that she invites local antiques dealer Kieran into the room, it might have been a figment of her imagination, echoing her unravelling grasp on reality.
In Hold, Tranter has written of Shelley’s emotional life sparely. There is none of the melodrama of traditional Gothic. Instead, Shelley’s descent into a type of grief-induced madness, her desperation to keep the room to herself is illustrated through Tranter’s depiction of the room as almost a living thing. Could she disappear into the room forever? In her determination to stay suspended in her space of grief, Shelley increasingly shrinks from the world around her. “I began to understand how limited the city was that I had recently made for myself, restricted to just a few pathways between the house and Oxford Street and the office.”
Throughout, Tranter draws on this feeling of suspension, of liminality. “When [Kieran] arrived, time passed into a sublime phase of heightened present tense, an unreal bubble around his presence: all other time seemed to be reduced to simply waiting for him, or reacting to his departure. I wanted time to go back to being of more manageable stuff, to release myself from that hold, even as I felt my heart contract at the idea.” Shelley’s affair with Kieran within her secret room keeps her memory of Conrad alive, for Kieran looks like him. This story, of beginnings which are endings, “double[s] over confusingly, disorienting the reader like a swimmer taking tumble turns in a lap pool.
Every action seems symbolic or archetypal in Hold. It isn’t difficult to become tied up in intellectual knots while deconstructing the text for meaning. Whether it is the gift from the neighbours of a bag of stones, “like a trick from a fairytale, a strange gift that was a test of some kind” to the menace of the metal sculptures which claw their way over the dividing fence. The emotional life of the book is to be found hidden within these motifs. Shelley recalls a drinking game at a party in her youth where a young man eager to impress instructs Shelley and another girl to close their eyes and imagine a beach. “The beach symbolises how you relate to people around you,” she is told. Shelley’s beach is “a narrow greyish ribbon of sand, and water lapping the beach with small, sluggish waves. The people I could see were close by, swimming and wading in the water, their faces turned away…Creatures from the forest I had travelled through watched the beach through the trees with their neutral animal gazes.”
The beach is a natural landscape for Australian Gothic, considering the majority of the population lives in coastal areas. It is quintessentially ‘ours’, not a colonial transplant and it has the symbolic power to terrify us in our beige suburban homes.
My copy courtesy of netgalley.
Kirsten Tranter, Hold, HarperCollins Australia, 1 March 2016, pb, 304 pp., R.R.P. $27.99