Review: Soundings by Liam Davison

Liam Davison is not a prolific author. Born in 1957, he published his first short story in 1981, and his first novel, Velodrome, in 1988. He has now published a total of four novels and some 25 short stories. Now he regularly reviews Australian fiction for the "Weekend Australian" and was a judge for the 2005 Australian/Vogel award. So his output has been limited. On the basis of his first two novels this is a pity. He produces interesting work and I, for one, would like to see more of it.

Soundings is set in Westernport Bay in Victoria, a swampy area prone to fierce downpours and flooding. The novels looks at the way the land and water has been treated by man since white settlement, examining the force exerted by the elements on the poeple who live there.

We first encounter Kerrison, a sealer in 1826 who is exploiting a local Aboriginal woman to survive. He encounters, in turn, a French exploratory force, and then William Hovell, a major English explorer of the period. Kerrison is a strange, violent man who is the first to feel the force of the environment in which he lives.

We then cut to the main story of the novel, that of Jack Cameron in the present-day. Cameron is a landscape photographer who has taken leave of his job from the Ministry of Lands, and who rents a house on the bay from Alton Kleist, an antiquarian book-dealer who is spending an extended period overseas. Added to the mixture of characters are the original owners of the house, the Droste family, and in particular their daughter Anna. The forward pace of the novel jumps between each of these characters, interweaving their narratives and slowly building up layers of understanding in the reader.

Cameron is attempting to take a rest from the landscape photography that he has been at for too long. "For himself, there was only the land, always seen through the eye of the lens, always with the aperture set at infinity. Even when there were features to be seen - a hill or lake or group of trees falling inside the co-ordinates of his map - they were pushed to one side, often only half in the picture, always reduced to a drab flatness by the requirements of his work." He longs to take photographs of people, portraits, even pornography, but he keeps being drawn back to the swamp, the mud and the water. In Kleist's house he finds photographs of the bay and portraits of Anna from the 1890s, and he starts to take his own photographs using, of all things, the finishing line camera from a disused greyhound racing track. His fixation on taking these photographs becomes almost an obsession as he drives all over the bay finding the best combinations of light and shade, sometimes returning day after day to the one spot to record the gradual passage of time. And slowly he starts to see things in his photographs that he is certain are not visible to the naked eye. The land is replaying its own history to him. Even as the mud and sandbanks shift and change with the tide and rain, they seem to retain a record of the passage of man. Each character experiences this is their own way, and none of them are able to understand the full nature of the forces surrounding them.

It's hard not to see Davison making some telling comments here regarding the contrast between the Europeans' relationship to this landscape, and that of the indigenous inhabitants. They, at least, did not attempt to tame the place. And neither where they swallowed up by it.

This is an impressive novel, short, and beautifully paced. Its concept of landscape lingers long in the mind, clinging on like the mud of the bay.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 10, 2006 11:12 AM.

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