I’ve just finished reading an e-book that has reminded me of another of those things a novel can do so well: create a community within the pages (or screen views) of a book. By that I mean the combination of place, characters and social world that a community is—but also a sense of community, of something shared among people who occupy the same space, whether the source of that something lies in the past, the present or even the future. When you, as a reader, become immersed in how those characters fit together in that place, the way their world works, the values that determine who belongs and who doesn’t, you almost start to feel you belong yourself, or at least know whose sofa you’d be sleeping on if you did.
The book I’ve just read is Marlish Glorie’s second novel, Sea Dog Hotel (2013), and the community, located in the fictional West Australian wheatbelt town of Nyacoppin, is centred around the eponymous hotel. Enter two outsiders: Ruth, a woman whose brain is ‘permanently broken’, and her longsuffering daughter, Grace. They arrive in Nyacoppin as new owners of the Sea Dog Hotel, the latest destination in a long series of disappointing ‘new starts’ in Ruth’s relentless search for the place where happiness lives.
Nyacoppin’s residents all seem to be broken, one way or another, and the town itself is built on marginal land, ‘a place where farms shouldn’t be, but were.’ But Marlish Glorie constructs, from these unprepossessing elements, a compelling fictional world—a community—where there are secrets, jealousies, nurturing, swindling, tragedy, bullshit, respect, love. And at the heart of it is the Sea Dog Hotel.
In this exchange, Ruth and Grace meet the woman who is the Sea Dog’s manager, cook, bartender, and (shifty) accountant:
The woman viewed Ruth with amusement. ‘My name’s Faith and I know every single person in Nyacoppin. All eighty. You ain’t any one of them. We never get tourists. So, you two have either lost your way, or you’re the new owners.’
‘New owners,’ declared Ruth, clapping her hands together and then leaning against the bar. ‘What a beautiful town you have here.’
Faith looked at Ruth suspiciously, trying to calculate if she was being sarcastic or polite. Either way, she didn’t like a newcomer telling her what Nyacoppin was like. It was best to shoot her down before she got too uppity. ‘This town is a shithole. But it’s our shithole.’
Ruth was mystified, convinced she had said the right thing. Grace suppressed a smile; someone else didn’t give a damn about her mother’s new start.
Marlish Glorie’s compassionate, often humorous novel is more than a story of a collection of colourful, quirky characters in a colourless, quirky town: it is a story of brokenness and redemption.
I have also recently read P.A. O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust (2012), a novel set in a different kind of rural town. Gunapan is the kind of place where the nearest hospital is more than half an hour away, the primary school is being threatened with closure, and the council is doing deals with developers that benefit wealthy out-of-towners and not the struggling majority of the population.
O’Reilly’s first-person narrator, Loretta Boskovic, is a deserted single mother with two kids, two goats, a swag of women friends, a fairy godfather in the form of old Norm, the junkyard man, and a crush on the newly arrived mechanic. She is also head of the Save Our School committee and the Sod Off Development committee—an all-round annoyance to the upper strata of Gunapan’s community and those who belong to its corrupt council.
I love this paragraph for its comedy and for what it tells us—in the space of 170 words—about Loretta, her inner life, her community and the contours of her world:
Melissa’s a mature eleven-year-old, but I am convinced that if I leave her alone in the house for more than twenty minutes a spectacular disaster will happen and she’ll die and I’ll be tortured by guilt for the rest of my life. I’ve pictured the LP gas tanks exploding, the blue gum tree in the yard toppling on to the house, a brown snake slithering out of a kitchen cupboard. Of course, any of those things could happen while I’m at home too, but I would have no guilt factor. The guilt factor means I may never have sex again, because attractive men looking for a good time rarely drop in spontaneously at my house. On the other hand, it has saved me from many of Helen’s girls’ nights, involving outings to pubs that the same attractive men looking for a good time never visit. I was also lucky enough to miss Helen’s ladies-only party where an enthusiastic twenty-year-old tried to sell dildoes and crotchless panties to astonished Gunapan farm wives.
Sea Dog Hotel and The Fine Colour of Rust welcomed me in to their communities, and I felt a punch of loss when it was time to leave.
Marlish Glorie’s first novel was The Bookshop on Jacaranda Street (Fremantle Press, 2009).