Monday, 9 May 2011

Time Well Worth Taking

As part of my ongoing quest to read more quality Australian novels, I decided earlier in the year to read Steven Carroll's Miles-Franklin-Award-Winning book The Time We Have Taken - then I discovered it was the third in a trilogy of tales...  So, having read the excellent The Art of the Engine Driver in January, and the even better The Gift of Speed in March, almost four months later, I finally got around to reading the final part of the series.

As I settled down on the settee to read the first few chapters, and the familiar, measured prose began to wash over me, I began to realise that I was feeling... well, happy.  A wave of nostalgic anticipation washed over me as I realised how much I was looking forward to reading the book.  Luckily, it didn't disappoint :)

So what is it about Carroll's work that I enjoy so much?  In lieu of actually writing a review (which is actually a bit pointless anyway as it's all about the journey, not the destination), I thought I'd try to pin down what it is I like about his writing.

1) It's a series.
More of a personal thing than a rock-solid recommendation, I know, but anyone who has frequented my blog over the past couple of years will know that I enjoy following writers and characters (e.g. The Barchester Chronicles, The Trilogy of the Rat), especially when the characters develop noticeably over the years and pages.  This is certainly the case here: we have seen Michael grow up from a solitary cricket-mad boy to a young man in love with life, literature and women; we've seen Vic finally pluck up the courage to make a break and start the final phase of his life; and we've seen how Rita copes with the changes, moving on in some ways, staying put in others.

2) It's set in Melbourne.
Again, a personal preference.  I've lived here now for nine years, without actually living in Melbourne proper.  For me, the setting of a novel in Melbourne gives me a glimpse of time past, an alternative history that I could have shared (but didn't).

3) The writing is wonderful.
Carroll's prose is deceptively profound, simple language blending into a greater whole, progressing casually and with a measured step - time is there for taking, and enjoying.  There's no need to rush.  The use of the present tense to describe events, along with the frequent switch in perspectives, gives the novel a slightly detached feel, in the manner of a scientist studying subjects through a microscope.  However, Carroll carefully adds feeling to his characters, like an artist slowly and meticulously creating his subjects on a canvas.

At this point, you're probably expecting samples of this language, but I'm not going to oblige.  Partially because I'm too lazy to copy it out (!), but mainly because the beauty consists not in any particular sentence or passage, but in the continual build up of the prose - the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts...

4) The way the novels deal with time.
The three books are not plot driven.  Things do happen, but there is no sense of surprise or suspense; in fact, the writer informs the reader of several important events well before they happen.  We know from the start of The Time We Have Taken that Michael's relationship with Madeleine is a fleeting, doomed affair, destined to remain imprinted in his memory as his first real love.  We are also aware of Vic's eventual fate from early on in the first of the three books (and it hasn't even happened yet!).

These glimpses of the future though are part of a global theme of time being less linear than ever present and simultaneous.  All the main characters are seen at multiple points in their lives, occasionally at the same time, either through memories or the intrusion of the narrator. As Vic nears the end of his time, he feels as if he is no longer living his life sequentially, but able to experience all parts randomly, childhood memories coming back and appearing as strong, as real, as his daily routine.

This use of time leads to the idea of multiple selves, the thought that a life consists not of one constantly-changing personality but of a series of versions of the self, the before me, the after me, or as Vic muses, the me-Vic and the them-Vic.  There's something very Proustian about the whole idea (I've just read some Proust, so forgive me if I'm stretching the point at the moment and viewing all my reading in his light...), and I'm wondering if Michael's girlfriend's name is a random, innocent choice...

Oh, there's so much more I'd like to talk about, such as the way certain characters or expressions would mean little to the new reader but speak volumes to anyone who has read the first two books, the style Carroll uses to show several actions happening simultaneously in different locations, the subtle use of real-life figures (Whitlam, the mountain on wheels)... enough.  I think I've managed to get my point across, and that is, of course, that I loved The Time We Have Taken, and I love the three books as a trilogy even more.

I'll definitely be looking for some of Carroll's earlier books, but I can't help feeling, as I always do, a little sad on reaching the end of the series.  Is that how it really ends, or is there room for more adventures, for one more book (or two) - we're only up to 1970, after all.  Perhaps, just perhaps (and I hope Mr. Carroll agrees), there's still a little more time left to be taken...