When I first started reading Sam Carmody's debut novel The Windy Season, I thought I had made a mistake.
I had just finished Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, a book deserving of the Pulitzer Prize, unlike The Road. It's a novel set before and during the second world war, following a blind French girl and a German boy genius whose lives hurtle towards and away from each other throughout the war years. It's a tale, as many of the war are, of tragedy and loss.
While the narrative is strong, it's the quality of Doerr's prose that elevates it to a great book. The descriptions in the book remind me of my own writing — if not in the quality but the style.
Then, while I'm digesting the final stanza of All the Light We Cannot See, I pick up The Windy Season.
It was a bit of a jump going from a world war two tragedy in Europe to a contemporary story set just north or just south of Geraldton (I couldn't quite figure out which direction the fictional town of Stark was). From the streets of Paris to the streets of Geraldton and surrounds. Slightly disorientating and slightly distasteful.
Before Geraldton/Stark, Carmody's novel begins on the ugly side of Cottesloe as the main character, Paul, is working his morning shift at Woolworths. Actually, it begins before this with half a page on the idea that: "There are things out there worse than sharks. He would know that in the end". This flash forward, given to us before we have met Paul or 'the German' that it mentions, sets the novel up as fatalistic and gives a sense of detachment to much of the opening.
"There are things out there worse than sharks. He would know that in the end".
This opening ('part one') takes place at Paul's workplace and his home, beginning as the news comes through that his older brother, Elliot, has gone missing. Something sinister hangs over the disappearance of this cray-fisher from Stark and the police are quick to ask questions. The questions around Elliot and uncovering their answers, is what drives the actions of Paul. Yet he does so in an almost passive manner, as if driven by something beyond himself; by fate.
This is especially true in 'part one' as things happen to the characters and they go about as if they are in a daze. When they speak we are told that they "said", adding to the fatalism and detachment of the novel; the characters cannot speak for theirselves, something has already spoken for them and Carmody is merely recounting this happening. The frequent repetition of "said" and other dialogue tags is annoying as it is something that writers are taught to avoid. However, it may be excused if the fatalism/passive/detached effect is intended.
It is only when Paul takes things into his own hands and decides to take Elliot's place as a crayfisher in Stark that things become less detached, though they retain their fateful tint by being set in the past. This is furthered by the use of flashbacks that develop the difficult relationship between Paul and Elliot.
While the story of Paul and Elliot and Stark are fixed in the unchangeable past, The Windy Season gains energy from sections told from the viewpoint of an unknown character, who is fleeing from the east coast of Australia with 'the generals' and 'the President'. Dispersed around the novel, often as conclusions to chapters, these are written in a talkative and very rich style. Such a section begins part two of the novel, almost as if Paul's decision to go to Stark sets off a chain reaction of events that send this unidentified character west.
I don't normally take pictures of myself holding a book in the mirror, but when I do I take quite a few.
Here, twenty pages in, Carmody finally begins to display his "natural feel for the beauty and toughness of language" that he is praised with.
Side note: it's a relief to read a book that doesn't begin with three or four pages of praise, though surely Carmody deserves more than just this one quote.
He deserves it because the novel from page twenty-three onwards is outstanding. Carmody is original in his use of metaphors and descriptions and the book is filled with memorable one-liners, both with the depictions of the world and its characters and with the speech of the characters.
The character's speech floats between the narration and dialogue tags (he said, she asked).
This dialogue is also interesting from the lack of quotation marks around it. The character's speech floats between the narration and dialogue tags (he said, she asked). The only other person I've read whose had the guts to do that is Tim Winton, a man who is in a class of his own. Without the old 66 and 99 it is easy to lose an idea of who is speaking and whether or not it is actually speech and, while this has happened to me while reading Winton, it didn't seem to be a problem with The Windy Season. Yet neither was it necessary and by using quotation marks Carmody could have avoided a criticism I have of his debut novel — frequent dialogue tags.
Another criticism I hold is that — SPOILER — the main character falls in love with the first girl he sees in Stark. It's a bit of a cliché that the first girl a male character takes notice of is bound to be their future girlfriend/wife. However, Carmody does play around with this cliché a little bit so I'll let it slide. Be warned though, their relationship lifts this book to a MA 15+ rating.
That's unlike Lost and Found, a best-selling novel by Carmody's friend Brooke Davis* . Similar to Davis with her debut novel, Carmody had trouble with meeting the word count that he was set. This shows in both novels and they kind of peter out at the end. After storing up all this mystery and energy for three hundred pages, Carmody leaves himself just twenty to resolve it. Without giving anything away, the ending, like Lost and Found, is not as satisfying as it could have been. It just seems to be missing that final line that hangs in the air like the smoke from a four-wheel drive's exhaust.
After storing up all this mystery and energy for three hundred pages, Carmody leaves himself just twenty to resolve it.
Yes, there is a nice line to end the novel, a sentence that sets Paul's mind on the future rather than the past like it has always been, but I feel like this is because the past to him is unsolvable — just like the ending to this novel was for Carmody.
All in all, it's a fantastic debut but I don't believe it will get as wide a readership as it deserves.
When I picked up The Windy Season I thought I had made a mistake: the book itself was too large, it was expensive ($29.95 at Dymocks), it was the only one on the shelf (maybe I should leave it for a reader who isn't aware of it). When I started reading it that mood didn't change: there's a reason there are no direct flights from Paris to Geraldton, the shift in prose from Doerr to Carmody was a drastic one (in style, not quality), and dialogue tags abounded like pimples on a teenager's face.
There's a reason there are no direct flights from Paris to Geraldton.
When I got to page twenty-something things changed and I thought: "Sam Carmody is a real literary talent, with an artist's inquiring mind and a natural feel for the beauty and toughness of language"**
Like many small-time and local authors, Sam Carmody doesn't need four pages to tell the reader his work is good, he only needs them to read it.
In that vein, and in light of Christmas occurring tomorrow, I'd encourage you to check out the products (books, artwork, photography, music etc) and shops (i.e. not online, grey market imports) of people based in your local area. It's probably too late for you to do that for a Christmas present tomorrow (when do the shops close on Christmas eve?) but there's boxing day sales and other things happening soon and there's never really a bad time to buy local.
Speaking of which, I'm going to start selling photographs next year so stay tuned for that.
.* that segway kind of works, but I'm pushing it. Sam was a tutor of mine at Curtin and for one of our lessons he had Brooke Davis and their 'plot doctor' (I can't remember his name) come in for a chat. A quick disclaimer: I have resisted being favourable to Carmody in this review despite him bringing in coffee and biscuits for some of our tutorials. Hearing him talk about his book (it's often easier to explain and teach things by using your own work as an example; The Windy Season was still being written at the time) meant that I knew a little bit about what was going to happen, so there may have been twists and turns that you'll experience that I didn't (for example, the big reveal that.... just kidding).
.** the quote comes courtesy of Charlotte Wood, from the back of the book.
Photo of my Week
Where I post a photo that sums up an aspect of my week.
I found a new view of Karratha and surrounds this week as I headed to twin radio towers on the Burrup Peninsula. Here, we can see the speedway and the edge of a quarry before the salt flats seperate the Burrup from the mainland. A line separating two sections of salt pulls the eyes upwards towards the compressed flood plains and edges of Karratha. The hills seperate the town from the soft clouds of the blue sky.
My hopes for this week didn't come true and I never ended up going out for a sunrise (or two). My excuse (other than needing to sleep) was of the cyclone heading this way and due to hit today or tomorrow, between Port Hedland and Broome. If I do get out for some early morning sun this week, I'd like to head here, but it is a bit too far from anything so I'll see.