LIMBERLOST by Robbie Arnott

Robbie Arnott is an exciting Australian author (see my review of The Rain Heron for the Weekend Australian and Flames.

His novel Limberlost continues to win accolades so here is my omnibus review from the Weekend Australian, accompanied by Carol Lefevre’s The Tower and The Sun Walks Down. (I’ve reproduced it because it is otherwise unable to be accessed and there’s lots of interest in Robbie’s work.)


By Robbie Arnott

Text Publishing, 240pp, $32.99


By Fiona McFarlane

Allen & Unwin, 416pp, $32.99


By Carol Lefevre

Spinifex Press, 300pp, $32.95

Review by Joy Lawn

At the heart of each of these timely Australian literary works is a potent symbol from myth or fairy tale.

Gods seem to materialise from the sky in The Sun Walks Down, a chronicle of a lost child in the Flinders Ranges in 1883 by Fiona McFarlane, awarded author of The Night Guest and The High Places. A mythologised whale anchors Limberlost by Robbie Arnott, the trail-blazing author of surrealist eco-fables Flames and The Rain Heron. Limberlost is the tale of a boy who finds a discarded boat on a Tasmanian property that promises freedom and perhaps a way back to the whale.  Carol Lefevre expands her feminist and ageist concerns in the Christina Stead Prize-shortlisted Murmurations to The Tower, a book of linked short stories. This is a realist work with allusions to Rapunzel’s witch and tower.

Limberlost follows the life of Ned West, seen first as a five-year-old who witnesses the “mad whale” that is terrifying the community with his strong, taciturn father and beloved older brothers Bill and madcap Toby.

After the two brothers enlist, fifteen-year-old Ned earns money trapping and shooting rabbits to realise his dream of a boat. Ned is empathetic and sensitive. His remorse when his trap injures a quoll becomes an “uncontrollable stinging in the folds of his mind”.

A new boat is beyond his reach but he sees promise in the clean lines and glimpses of golden timber in an old dinghy. Ned teaches himself to repair and sail the boat on the river. He discovers that it is a treasure made of rare ancient, impermeable Huon pine.

The trees and forest give Ned peace. Their “unknowable, intricate depths” unmoor his pain, shame and sorrow. Whereas cultivated Limberlost, the family apple orchard, is a more conflicted place.

As forests are felled and the landscape changes over time the Letteremairrener and Panninher peoples are recognised as the true owners of the land and the river is known by its original name, kanamaluka. Ned’s grown daughters tell him about the invasion and massacres that happened before the orchard was planted. Their “quiet, fumble-mouthed father” cannot share his love of the land, trees, river and his boat or the news about his beloved, capable wife that he has come to tell.

Limberlost is a veiled retelling of Australia’s colonial story. It follows a white family that has cleared and inhabited land, displacing and replacing its traditional owners and native wildlife with introduced and invasive species.  The limbs are lost. Although finely told and about a sympathetic protagonist and family, it is ultimately a damming parable.

Robbie Arnott (photo Text Publishing website)

A wide-ranging cast of self-important white men, their families and the Aboriginal people working for them also raises the spectre of colonisation as they hunt for a lost child in The Sun Walks Down.  

After six-year-old Denny becomes lost in a dust storm, he thinks the angry gods have descended from the sun and are hunting him with fire. When he sees the “God-struck” burning tree he fears that the gods threaten his mother. The dramatic landscape and a young boy’s interpretation of his world as he strives to reach the safety of home fashion the vibrant, allusive imagery that underpins this antipodal epic.

Meanwhile, search parties of men and Denny’s spirited sister Cissy look for the boy. Aboriginal trackers with complex histories of stolen land and children and knowledges of old law and “land dense with motion: the motion of ancestors, spirits, songs, stories … fire and the celestial bodies” are recruited.

Karl the Swedish painter holds the role of exotic outsider. He dazzles like an angel and, with his resourceful artist wife Bess, is a bridge to another place. The sun doesn’t set in Swedish, “it walks down” and, inspired by the overwhelming red sky and the missing boy, Karl makes a pact to paint “the feeling of being both claimed by and exiled from the world”.

Artists also feature in The Tower, a series of interlinked stories defined by the major tale of The Tower that winds throughout the book. Two young Sydney women defied convention to study art. Elizabeth (Bunty) became a full-time painter and, when pregnant, threatened, “I’d rather throw myself from that [turret] window than give up painting” but Dorelia relinquished art to have children.

In a later generation, Mariel‘s paintbrush took her to London but she became distracted and lost her urge to create. Sheena hones her eye working in a fine art gallery that specialises in the Australian female artists Stella Bowen, Clarice Beckett, Grace Cossington-Smith, Dorritt Black and Margaret Olley, who was at art school with the fictional Elizabeth Bunting.

The epigraph by Margaret Olley, “We are all prisoners of our upbringing. Some people thrash around in that cage all their lives; only when you find the door and get out do you learn to fly”, reflects the expected role of women that Olley and some of the characters in The Tower dismantle.

As a young woman, Mariel lived in an English village where she felt transformed as though “dropped into a fairy tale”. Impulsively, she returns from Australia as an elderly woman rather than go to the assisted living residence her doctor recommends. After her husband dies, Dorelia buys a house with a tower without telling her children and becomes part of her own Rapunzel fairy tale. Although she now looks like a witch she feels like a queen in disguise. She knows that young women need to fly and one day, if they are lucky, as old women they will retreat into their own towers.

Most of the women in this multidimensional literature are adventurous, creative and strong. Once they age, they are invisible or infantilised. Many of them are forgotten, their talent subjugated.

These three books remind us that the quintessence of our country, as well as those who may be overlooked, should remain indelible in our collective memory and perhaps even be elevated into the realm of the heroic.

Joy Lawn is a critic specialising in literary fiction, YA and children’s books

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