Reasons to love a novel: community

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:

18627596The 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:

12914567Melissa’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).

P.A. O’Reilly has published (as Paddy O’Reilly) The Factory (Thompson Walker, 2005) and The End of the World (UQP, 2008).


Filed under Reasons to love a novel

13 responses to “Reasons to love a novel: community

  1. I loved Sea Dog Hotel too, Amanda, for pretty much the same reasons you point out. I had a sense of the hotel as a ship in the desert, almost a mirage, definitely as weird as the characters themselves, all written in a hugely accessible, conversational style that makes you feel you know poor old Ruth and cynical Faith and quiet Amy. Thank you for this lovely post and review 🙂

  2. I loved Sea Dog Hotel too, Amanda. Look out for my review in The West Australian.

  3. Louise Allan

    Marlish’s book could only be told in her distinctive voice, full of humour and quirky and loveable characters. What I also love about her writing, is her insight and that she finds the truth at the heart of it. I can’t wait to read this — it sounds like it is my type of book!

  4. marlish glorie

    My Dear Fellow Writers – Thank you! Thank you! for your kind and generous words, they mean a great deal to me. Curiously, like you Amanda, I miss that wonderfully wacky township of Nyacoppin and its population of 80…every single one of them. I spent some time yesterday thinking about what draws me to eccentric people – some folk have even called me eccentric! – I do love eccentric people, like the ones I’ve come to know and love on Face book. I’m drawn to the different, because in difference lies honesty. There’s no hiding in sameness, in blending in, to please others. I’m drawn to people who are individualistic Again, my heartfelt thanks, especially to you Amanda – where would the writing community of Perth be without you. Perish the thought! I’ve ordered a copy of The Fine Colour of Rust, and can’t wait to read it. xx

  5. Glen Hunting

    Hi everyone. Hoping very much to get hold of a copy of Sea Dog Hotel once I figure out the technology (bit of a troglodyte, I’m afraid.) Looking forward to reading it.

  6. marlish glorie

    You’re absolutely right, Amanda. 🙂 And yes Glen, you need to grab a Kindle from somewhere, so sorry. Self-publishing Sea Dog Hotel was infinitely less costly than if I’d published it as a print book. Also I wasn’t in the least bit confident that I’d be able to sell it as a print book. With self-publishing, it’s remarkably similar, ( or should be), to traditional publishing, but only up to a point – where the two types of publishing diverge significantly, as you would no doubt know,Glen, is that with self-publishing your quite limited when it comes to marketing and publicity – hence the great reliance on social media!

  7. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge—2013 wrap-up | looking up/looking down

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