Tuesday 18 January 2011

Life and Trains

After completing 2010's Aussie Author Challenge recently, it's straight on to the 2011 edition, a little more arduous than last year's version.  I have somewhat foolishly pledged to read twelve books by at least nine different Australian writers (one a month - no problem, right?).  The first stop was Wikipedia, to have a quick look at Miles Franklin Award winners for a little inspiration, and I clicked on the 2008 winner, Steven Carroll's The Time We Have Taken, only to find that it was the third in a trilogy (of which the other two were also shortlisted for the award).  Then it was off to the library web-site to do a quick search for the first of the trilogy, and a couple of hours later I was was plucking it from the shelves.  Isn't technology wonderful :)

The first of Carroll's trilogy is called The Art of the Engine Driver and is set in 1950s suburban Melbourne (although, in today's sprawling metropolis, the 'new' suburb, 9kms from the centre, would count as inner-city!).  Vic, a passionate train driver, his wife Rita and their son Michael are on their way down the road to a party, while Paddy Ryan, a highly-experienced colleague and mentor of Vic, is about to take the Spirit passenger train on its run from Melbourne to Sydney.  Both these events will end up affecting the lives of the characters populating the pages of this book, although perhaps not in the way it may first seem.

The novel is basically separated into two unevenly-weighted strands, with the bulk of the story centred on the family's long, slow walk to the party (and, believe me, it's a slow walk).  Luckily, the author doesn't restrict himself to the three unities, and the text meanders through time and place with flashbacks (flashesback?!) and flashforwards, as well as switching rather impressively from third- to first-person for several of the main characters, something which has the effect of allowing us multiple glimpses of the same occurrence.

Despite these tantalising glimpses of what the future may hold, however, the meaning of the events remain elusive until the end of the story.  Certainly, I was expecting the party to be leading up to some sort of climax, but Carroll skilfully turns it into a more subtle affair, slight cracks appearing in the fabric of relationships, rather than the gaping chasms the reader is suspecting may appear.  Like the slow walk to the party, and the ever-present comet in the sky, things happen gradually in Carroll's world.

As much as it is about Vic, his family and his frustrated dreams, The Art of the Engine Driver is also about Melbourne, and Australia, in the 1950s.  The newly-constructed suburb, a vast plain cleared of trees, ready for the families to arrive and the houses to go up, is populated by people from all over the world: from the Anglos with their dubious (or proud) heritage, to the newly-arrived mainland Europeans.  The contrast between the first, hesitant signs of suburbia and the wild, uncontrolled bushland is a very familiar one to me; my own house is situated not far from Melbourne's new urban fringe - which is just slightly further out from the CBD than was the case in the fifties...

While some things are very recognisable today (such as Michael's desire to be a fast bowler!), some are relics of a time long gone.  The misguided '6 o'clock swill', the early closing times for pubs which merely resulted in working men drinking themselves sick between five and six p.m., is sketched out beautifully(?) here, legions of drunken workers staggering out of the pubs as bar staff literally hose down the beer- (and vomit-) soaked floors.  We also see the slow but inevitable signs of progress, shown in the replacement of the old steam engines with the new diesel trains - and the preference for the new-fangled 'rock' music among the younger generation...

The Art of the Engine Driver (and the title does make sense as this art is a pivotal part of the novel) is well worth reading, and I'll definitely be hunting out the second book in the trilogy, The Gift of Speed.  And that, you see, is just what makes this challenge so difficult: how am I supposed to read books by nine different Australian authors if I like all the books?  I'll just end up reading lots of books by the same author.  At this rate, I'll need about twenty books just to make it to nine writers :(