The Garden Book
"Brian Castro's new novel is set in the Dandenong Ranges in the years between the Depression and the Second World War. The story revolves around Swan hay, born Shuang He, daughter of a country schoolteacher, her marriage to the passionate and brutal Darcy Damon, and her love affair with the aviator and architect Jasper Zenlin. Fifty years after her disappearance, Norman Shih, a rare book librarian, pieces together Swan's chaotic life from clues found in guest house libraries, antiquarian bookshops and her own elusive writings. But what exactly is he hoping to find?
"The Garden Book is about loneliness, addiction, exploitation; it is about the precarious nature of Australian lives, when gripped by fear and racial prejudice. Yet underlying the story, and commanding it, there is the assured beat of Castro's prose, evoking an ideal world beyond these fears, full of richness and power."
Sometimes when you walk down to the cairn they've erected in memory of the crash you feel a bit ghoulish - wun gwai, as they say amibiguously in Chinese, 'hunting phantoms' which also means 'looking for nothing'. A daft undertaking. You wouldn't want to die on the side of this mountain, overcome by smoke. There is a stony track leading from the lookout, littered with shattered bourbon bottles and flattened beer cans. Beneath that there are the burnt remains of other times; layers and older layers. For a forensic collector, everything has its sombre significance. You may be looking at the last moments of a human gesture.
A gale blows, circling up from the flats, making the wires whistles. Stringybarks rasp. At times the ground shudders when a giant eucalypt falls and then the air is thick with the smell of leaf and loam. They fall without warning; roots in soft volcanic soil, heavy branches swooning in gusts, swollen with leaves. Every limb a sword of Damocles. You are broaching a former wilderness here. The hills are studded with orchards and nurseries now, but seventy years ago huge mountain ash rose up hundreds of feet and cool, dark forests formed a blue wall against the creeping city. The wind rakes through them, tearing down bark, rending memory with enfilading fire. In a cutting off Ridge Road there is a clearing and the ground is covered by little mounds of cigarette butts where people have emptied their car ashtrays. Countless cairns of long-dead anxieties, burnt-out lusts, charred moments of fear. Ice cubes of broken windshield glass. Two syringes. Seven used condoms. You suspect French letters despoited in such a way archive a particular system which is part sociological, part psychological. Seven is an anxious number.
From the Giramondo paperback edition, 2005.
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This novel was longlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2006 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Brian Castro page.
Last modified: April 14, 2006.