Late last year, after I gave a brief talk at a function celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Battye Library for Western Australian History, a writer friend who attended suggested that I publish it here. Good idea—thanks, Ian Reid! Taking that a step further, I’ve decided to post three of the speeches I made in 2016.
The other two were on the occasion of launching books, which is always as much a pleasure as it is undoubtedly an honour. I’ve edited the speeches to focus on why I loved the books concerned, and I’m happy to have another opportunity to do just that!
Here is the first, for the Perth launch of Robyn Mundy’s novel Wildlight (Pan Macmillan/Picador), at Beaufort Street Books last March…
As most of you know, Wildlight is Robyn’s second novel. Her first, The Nature of Ice, announced a huge talent: a superb storyteller, a writer with an ear for the music of language, a writerly architect of place, a writer capable of the beautiful and the profound.
Wildlight, too, delivers all these things and more.
To give you the briefest of sketches: it begins in 1999 with 16-year-old Stephanie West travelling with her parents to remote Maatsuyker Island, just off Tasmania’s south-west coast. The family—now only three since the death of Stephanie’s twin brother Callum—are to be stationed there for five months as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. Five months without a social life, without mobile coverage, without basic home comforts like heating, without email. Unsurprisingly, Steph isn’t there by choice.
Into this scenario comes Tom Forrest, a 19-year-old deckhand on his brother’s crayfishing vessel which works the dangerous waters surrounding the island. Tom doesn’t have much choice in his situation, either, and his predicament is made worse by the tyrannical Frank’s dodgy fishing practices.
The narrative alternates between these two characters, Stephanie and Tom, allowing us to know them both, and sometimes to know more than they do.
I’m guessing that the first thing that reviewers of Wildlight are going to remark on is the setting—Maatsuker Island—but it is a great deal more than a novel of place, however atmospherically and beautifully that place is brought to life.
The subtle strength of the novel, for me, lies in the complexity Robyn brings to her small cast of characters. This is especially evident in the young characters, young people still in the process of becoming, unsure of who they are or could be, tentatively testing what they think they want against what is expected of them. Robyn’s respect for these young people, her care for the problems they face and the decisions they make, is clear, and never more so than in the way she shows them gaining the ability to turn to the adults in their lives, seeing their flaws, and moving beyond impatient teenage judgment.
Robyn also respects her readers. We come to understand many of the whys of character and story through threads of the past looping through the present, but there is no tight stitching here, no neatly tied bows. Robyn gives us enough to work with but resists over-explanation, allowing us space to speculate on, for example, the truthfulness of Stephanie’s mother’s idealised memory of her childhood on the island when her father was lightkeeper; Stephanie’s barely formed feelings about the changes in her twin before his death; her parents’ relationship; the vulnerability in Tom’s mother, the fearfulness underlying her blind deference to Frank. This is sophisticated writing.
Wildlight is also a portrait of grief. Here is Stephanie recalling her grandmother’s words:
According to Gran, this second year should have felt easier than the first. By the second year, Gran said, you could no longer look back the way you had the first, thinking this time last year we were all together, this time last Christmas, last birthday. The last of everything, drifting from your reach. You medicated yourself on the distance of time—a sedative that dulled the sharpness, then locked you in its murk. It was a kind of worn-out grief you couldn’t easily share, not once the time allowed for sadness had elapsed.
Stephanie and her parents, Gretchen and James, are a lost and broken family, each one locked painfully in themselves, confused and struggling, tiptoeing around the others for fear of opening cracks that might let the unbearable into the light. Callum’s death haunts them individually and haunts the family. And this lost boy haunts the narrative, too—not just as sadness, but as disturbance. There are no stereotypes here, no easy emotions.
But there is breathtaking writing—images you can see and hear and, in this example, smell:
Steph stood by her bedroom window staring at the night. The fishing fleet’s cluster of lights sparked through the dark. She opened the window to the air. The moon had finally appeared, a broad silver blade pressed down on the water… The bleats and groans from seals carried through the night, mournful as a cattle yard. She inhaled the cloying smell of mutton-bird, air rancid with their oil. The endless chatter of birds. An orchestra of discord pulsating through the night.
And so to the setting, to the exhilarating creation of place that comes from a writer who has lived it and allowed it to enter her cells. The ocean, the Needles and the Mewstone emerging from the sea, the lighthouse and all the history trapped within its lens, the freezing, comfortless, ‘skanky’ lightkeeper’s cottage where the family lives, the deafening sound of those crazy, odiferous muttonbirds, the clouds, the rain, the cold. And the wind—a relentless, infernal wind that we cannot begin to comprehend.
The Maatsuyker of Wildlight is raw and wild and utterly compelling, and this timeless place cannot help but shape the lives of its characters as they head into a new millennium—and for all the years beyond.
Wildlight is a coming-of-age story, a story of first love and first flight. A story about the fragility and concomitant strength of family, and the ravages of grief. And yes, it is a story of place—wild, unforgiving, unforgettable.
Robyn talks about Wildlight here