Review: The Wing of Night by Brenda Walker

wing_of_night.jpg Brenda Walker
Viking, 266 pp.
Review by Perry Middlemiss

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.]

Brenda Walker's fifth novel, The Wing of Night, tells the story of two women living south of Perth, Western Australia, between 1915 and 1922. It's a novel of war, not of the act of war, though that does feature, but of the effects war has on the men who fight it and on the women who are left behind, waiting.

This is an area of fiction that you would think had been mined to death by this time. The landing at Gallipoli and the forging of the Anzac legend has been dramatised and novelised more times than most would care to remember. So it takes some level of nerve and some level of skill to approach the subject from a different standpoint and come up with a work of fiction that is both fresh and familiar, skilful and accessible. Brenda Walker has done just that with this novel.

Her major intuitive leap is to tell the story mainly from the point-of-view of the women who have waved their men off on the troopships at Fremantle docks. Elizabeth is a woman of some privilege, being the daughter of a judge and married to Louis, while Bonnie is a country girl who has been with Joe for only a few weeks. The two live in a small community south the Perth and it is through them and their men that Walker tells her story.

The first thing you notice about this novel is the language: it flows in a quiet, languorous fashion, detailing the lives of the women as they learn to live a life without men.

All over the south-west, soldiers' wives were learning to sleep alone. Sleeping themselves back into the nights before their weddings, or waking in hot sheets to the clicking of crickets. They were afraid of wandering swagmen, afraid of rape and robbery. They listened to insects and the sound of hot wind in fencing wire. When they slept they dreamed of quickly forgotten things: urgent words which made no sense and unknown men with very dark or very pale skin. Is it faithlessness, if it happens in a dream? Women lay alone in empty farmhouses and frogs sang in the ferneries under water tanks.
For the women the country life seems to slow as the urgency of farm-life is overtaken by worry about the men overseas. In contrast, the men's lives in trenches on the Turkish coast take on a sense of heightened stress and anxiety as they wait for the upcoming battle, a battle they have little chance of surviving. Walker doesn't dwell on the battle scenes, however, her aim is to show the effect the war has on men not the Sturm und Drang of the action itself. It's the monster in the cupboard approach again: the terror lies in the imagination not in the actual unveiling of the creature.
They filed into the trench after the two lines of Victorians had been killed. The dead up above them were jerking as low bullets caught a shoulder or a hip. The air was dark with lead. Pegs were driven into the earth so that you could climb out when the whistle blew. It was supposed to be like pulling yourself up over the rocks at a waterhole to get into a position to dive. The charge to the opposite trench was supposed to be like a long fall into the prickling sweep of water. A courage dive.
We are left in no doubt about the effect this type of action has on the men who survive, being "nothing but dried flesh stumbling down to the edge of the sea."

Louis is killed at Anzac Cove and while Joe returns he comes home with a secret, one that he struggles to live with. This secret affects the second part of the novel. We are given hints and clues but nothing definite until near the end. The men who have returned are damaged in spirit as well as body.

After the war, the relationships change as Elizabeth's life begins to slowly unravel without the presence of Louis, and Bonnie starts to look after her. Elizabeth's father starts to spend more and more time on his daughter's farm and, in the one discordant note I found in the book, eventually marries Bonnie and takes her away back to Perth. May-and-December weddings were quite common after the First World War as a good part of a generation of young men were destroyed in one way or another, yet this arrangement seems to me to be there mainly to make the way clear for Joe to arrive on the scene and move in with Elizabeth. I should point out that the note doesn't ring very loudly. It's a minor irritant at best and is handled in such a way that it seems like a natural progression of events.

In this novel Walker has aimed to provide us with the best that fiction can provide: the chance to live in a fully-developed world outside our own experience. Her ability to inhabit the characters and bring them fully to life is a talent to be savoured. As well as she handles the women, it is with the men at war that I believe she fully excels, showing their courage and their weaknesses, their dire predicaments and the terrible choices they have to make:

Men who still had the horses they brought with them from Australia were most determined to shoot them. But there was something else, something that Joe recognised apart from the worry about hunger and cruelty and the bewildered hearts of the deserted horses. It was great strain, the ending of the war. You shot your horse and there was an end to all that was bad. Or so you hoped. You could shoot yourself. Or you could shoot your horse. There were fellows who did both, given a little time and the opportunity.
This novel is a superb achievement, beautifully written and affecting. If it wins the Miles Franklin Award, and then goes on to further honours outside this country, I would not be at all surprised.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 24, 2006 9:47 AM.

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