Review: Love Without Hope by Rodney Hall

love_hope.jpg Rodney Hall
Picador, 269 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

The best novels work on a variety of levels: plot, character, setting, and subject being just a few of them. Some climb high to the metaphor strata, whether deliberately or not, and thereby become much more than the simple sum of the parts - of the lower layers. Love Without Hope, the 12th and latest novel by Rodney Hall, is very nearly one of those books, one that certainly reaches for the lofty heights and only just fails to attain them.

Mrs Lorna Shoddy lives alone on her farm breeding horses, after her husband walked out some twenty years or so prior to the novel's commencement. Although she has managed to maintain the farm in working order she has been gradually neglecting herself, both physically and mentally, and when a bushfire blasts through her property she becomes depressed and her mental state worsens. Two local women pay her a charitable visit but are chased off the property by an obviously distressed Mrs Shoddy.

This action sets in train the beginning of the novel, with Mrs Shoddy committed to a nearby mental institution run by the gothically named Master in Lunacy, and with her farm being sold out from underneath her by an unscrupulous local businessman for profit, on the pretense of unpaid council rates and taxes. At first Shoddy rails against the treatment she receives, strapped into a straitjacket, unable to move, wallowing in her own filth, and screaming incoherently into the night. Yet even in this state she is aware that she isn't quite right:

She, who was once that hearty little horsewoman, recognises herself as reduced to a tiny stick-person with twig hands and bark for skin, perhaps scarcely even recognisable.
Her struggles against the system that has imprisoned her, the de-humanising treatment she receives, her quest for deliverance and the machinations of the townsfolk who wish her good, and ill, form the basis of the plot.

It is impossible not to be aware, as a reader, of the times in which this book was written. Hall, himself, gives his first clue in his dedication, which simply reads: for Julian Burnside. If you have an interest in human rights in this country you will have heard of the dedicatee, a barrister who is currently President of Liberty Victoria and who has spent a considerable amount of time and effort working against the extended detention of what the present federal government refers to as "illegal immigrants". But even beyond this first clue, it is impossible to ignore the case of David Hicks, Australia's sole remaining prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. I'm generally rather dubious of pushing metaphors in novels too far yet the parallels here seem rather too obvious to be ignored.

Rodney Hall is digging into some visceral human fears in the situation he has developed here. I suspect, deep down, we all fear incarceration without hope of escape and the loss of individualism. And Hall deliberately wants us to have some sense of what this loss of liberty means to the human spirit:

She cannot feel the straps that restrain her. Her little nerveless arms. Her nerveless chest and thighs. It frightens her to think about the pharaohs bound up in swaddling cloth, each one bandaged stiff, suffocating inside a mask, and fitted with a body-moulded coffin. Not for them the comfort of soil, the gentle rotting rupture till the delicate gelatinous fell from their bones -- no -- like her, they were destined for a sterner fate, cured and straightened out, locked down in a prison of a permanent existence among divine beings half-animal, half-human, dog-nosed and vulture-winged and, in each form, enigmatic. She knows it. And how voice, vision, touch and taste must all be surrendered while the core comes to be drawn out as spirit, that irreclaimable spirit, eternally in search of lodgings under the cowl of alien winter darkness.
We most certainly don't want to be there.

Hall is as much poet as novelist, as the previous paragraph indicates, and he is best when exploring the inner workings of the human psyche under duress. His work drops away a little when the novel's focus is diverted onto those outside the immediate environs of the mental institution. The characters are not under as much strain and hence are less well-delineated in the reader's mind; a mind that comes to see them as appendages to the novel's core. In addition, a couple of the story's turns seem a little contrived and the ending cut short a touch. This is not to say that the sections of the novel that do not directly deal with Mrs Shoddy and her incarceration are without interest. On the contrary, Hall is attuned to small town politics, the flickering allegiances and the moral ambiguities. It's just that, in her delirium and distress, Lorna Shoddy presents as the most interesting subject for inspection.

All in all, though, we are looking at an ambitious piece of work. A novel of our times dealing with the relationship between individual and state, the effects of mental illness, and the strengthening power of love.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 21, 2007 9:05 AM.

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