The combination of a birthday and a new book by an author who you love is always good. Especially since I didn’t know that Murray Bail had finally written another novel. My bad. So, does it live up to Murray Bail’s excellent? And more importantly, was it a good birthday present?
Erica Hazelhurst is a philosopher working at Sydney University, and has been asked to go out west to investigate the personal papers of Wesley Antill, whose will asked that they published as a philosophy, on the advice of his siblings. With her friend Sophie, a psychoanalyst, they travel to the farm on which he lived, where his two siblings – sister Lindsey, and brother Roger – are waiting to give Erica the lowdown on their recently deceased brother. As Erica starts to investigate the pages of Wesley’s philosophy, everything around her starts to change.
To be fair, not a lot happens in this book. At all. It starts off with some excellent promise, with Erica and Sophie introduced to us as they drive out west, in a typically excellent Bail way. Unfortunately, though, neither of them are very strong characters, instead (to use a painting metaphor) painted with kind of broad strokes that don’t really tell us that much about them. Erica doesn’t talk that much, and Sophie talks a little. Both prefer to listen to other people, and while Lindsey is a bit of a talker, Roger is the strong but silent type that just sits down and watches the landscape.
The more interesting parts of the novel are contained in Wesley’s flashbacks, in alternating chapters, to his time in Sydney and Europe, continuing Bail’s interest in Australians overseas, as in his first novel, Homesickness. His experiences with philosophy, and how it affects and changes him are interesting, with Bail preferring to ponder what philosophy does to someone, rather than what philosophy has to say about life itself. His time in Europe meanders around, until the very end (by which stage, I was wondering how on earth the book could possibly end, considering I had so few pages to do, and no sort of conclusion in sight), when the whole thing falls into place.
The best thing about this novel is, of course, its language. Once again, Bail shows himself to be a master of language and description, and he is in his element here when talking about the landscape out west of Sydney, and even some parts of Sydney itself are excellent. The Europe parts, not so much, except maybe some of the parts in London, a highly unphilosophical town.
To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by The Pages. It is a short little thing that tries to talk about philosophy in an interesting and unusual way, but it is just too short and light to be very good at that. For me, a story like this needs to be either a short story, or a massive, sprawling novel. Instead, it kind of meanders around its characters, not really allowing them to be very much (the three women in particular), and kind of leaving you feeling a bit flat.