Wonders of a Godless World (2009) – Andrew McGAHAN

With my reading dry spell finally broken (avast, Orham Pamuk!), I treated myself to a new novel. To be fair, though, I borrowed it from work. No splurging here – I’m a poor uni student, after all. But Andrew McGahan’s new novel looked fascinating, so I thought I’d give it a go.

A young orphan lives in a mental institution on a remote island. She cannot talk to anyone, or understand what they are saying, but she manages to get along, and performs menial tasks at the hospital. One day, when a foreigner arrives at the hospital, though, her life is turned upside-down, and the boundary between reality and memory becomes irrevocably damaged.

Andrew McGahan has, in the past, written a crime novel, a grunge novel, the Great Australian Novel, and a political satire. His ability to take a tired genre and turn it into something new is his best skill, and in Wonders of a Godless World, he turns his hand to magical realism – something almost untouched by the Australian literary landscape.

And by God, I think it’s probably his best work to date. The magical realism frame he works in seems to lend itself perfectly to his style of writing, and there is almost a fairytale tone throughout the whole thing – helped, no doubt, by the distinct lack of proper nouns, mainly because the orphan cannot remember names. There are none in the whole book – the characters are named for what the orphan thinks they are – the foreigner, the duke, the witch, the archangel, and the virgin all make an appearance. And despite their names, they are fully formed and fleshed out characters, and each one is beautifully unique. The latter four I mention here are all high risk patients in the hospital, and they are, oddly enough, perfectly charming. Granted, this is partially because they all become victims of horrible crimes, but the tragedy of their impossible situations is truly moving. Each of them has suffered so much in the past, their mind has snapped, and they are now forced to live out their lives as a shadow of their former selves. The magical realism also dovetails nicely with these themes of mental instability and the questions of reality and imagination – something magical realism focuses on, anyway – and this helps to strengthen the novel.

The foreigner is, though, the most interesting character. It is he who provides the catalyst for most of the action, and he is almost like a god to the orphan. The title of the novel is very clever, because actually, this is a very pro-science, pro-knowledge novel, and the titular wonders are the amazing things the natural world has achieved without any help. It is also an environmental cry for help, where Earth itself is a vitally important character in what is going on here. There are some lovely touches that tie in this timeless tale with both the contemporary sciences of space itself, and the medieval concepts of the four basic elements. To name but a few.  I’m hesitant to tell you more, because I really want you all to discover it for yourself, but this kind of environmentalism/science-y theme actually becomes the most vital part of the novel, rising above that of questions of reality.

There’s also a lot of symbolism going on in Wonders, and I’m not sure I understood it all. Yet. I’m getting there. But there is a lot to take in here, and even though this is not a long novel, it is packed with ideas and concepts that slowly make themselves clear, and each chapter adds to the last in a way that creates tension and suspense not usually seen in what we might call a ‘literary novel’. Don’t be put off by this – McGahan has a lot to say here, and while I didn’t pick it all up the first time around, I hope to give it another go so I can marvel once more at this man’s amazing intelligence.

I have a new favourite novel, and this is it.I’ll admit something here, now. I have been known to sometimes gloss over the tiny nit-picky things in Australian novels in the hope people will go and pick them up. And I don’t feel bad about it. But this is not what I’m doing here, I promise. In fact, I’ve barely covered half of what I want to talk about. But I’m going to stop so you can go and read it, then come back and talk to you about it. This is a legitimately good novel, and I really hope it finds not just an Australian audience, but an international one, too. It really is that good, and has so much to tell us all, you need to go and tell all your overseas (and Australian) friends about it.

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17 thoughts on “Wonders of a Godless World (2009) – Andrew McGAHAN

  1. Sarah says:

    Sold! I will have to try this, just hope it lives up to expectations.

  2. JimmyBean says:

    I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  3. whisperinggums says:

    Haven’t read past the first para or so as I like to read reviews AFTER I’ve read the book myself. I too like McGahan. I notice you’ve read Praise. Did you read the one after that? 1988? Also in the Grunge vein. They were probably the first Gen-X novels I’d really read and I liked the writing. I found the characters frustrating for a protestant work ethic oriented baby-boomer but were well drawn. I really liked The white earth but haven’t yet read Underground. Must do so…and get to this one as well

    • matttodd says:

      I’ve not read 1988 yet – or Last Drinks. But I love all that Gen X grunge literature, so I should get my hands on it soon. That, and Andrew McGahan is a god amongst men. The White Earth is also brilliant, and while Underground is not his finest work, it’s pretty funny.

      Also, I promise I try to not spoil books when I review them – but if you’re really worried, I’d read the first and last paragraphs here. That’s where I try to put all the important stuff.

      • whisperinggums says:

        Thanks Matt … I really must read Underground. I gave it to my husband and he has read it so it is here under my nose! And thanks re advice re reading your reviews – but, you know, I’m one of those (well, I suppose I’m not the only one) weird people who prefers not to read reviews because I don’t really want to read someone else’s impressions so, it’s not only spoilers I’m wary of but having my own response to a book (film etc) influenced by someone else’s. For this reason I tend to go looking for reviews after I’ve read and formed my own opinion. I don’t read review sections of papers either – I just scan to see what’s out there. Does all this make sense?

  4. Julia says:

    Praise is one of my favorite novels, but I haven’t read any of McGahan’s others. I guess I was skeptical of the possibility that he could write in so many different genres and do it well. This newest one sounded particularly bizarre. But, following your gushing review I will definitely check it out, maybe even suggest it for my book club. And I do love the cover.

    • matttodd says:

      Praise is pretty excellent. And you’ll be happy to know that Wonders still has some thoroughly bizarre sexual acts going on – very McGahan. And yes, the cover is also excellent.

  5. Lisa Hill says:

    Hello Matt, this is a model review! A pleasure to read, and it makes the book seem enticing without giving anything away. Let’s hope Santa has a book voucher in my Xmas stocking so that I can go and buy it!
    Lisa (ANZ Litlovers)

    • matttodd says:

      I’ve not blushed since Madam Pomfrey complimented my new earmuffs! (Harry Potter quote there, if you don’t know…) Thanks, Lisa. And do read the book – I really mean what I say in the review.

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    I went looking for it today, Matt, but it was not to be found at Dymocks, A&R or the ABC shop so I’ve reserved it at the library.
    Have a great Christmas, and I hope Santa brings you many more books to enjoy:)

  7. Soapy says:

    Do you know that Andrew McGahan is my uncle???No I’m serious he is!! I always meet him and I can tell you alot about him if you want! Except his address…! You can ask him! He sent us cheeses for Christmas! To his brother Martin! Please he really is my uncle! He sent goats cheese umm and the rest I forget but he really is my UNCLE!

    • matttodd says:

      I did not know that at all! That’s pretty cool. I still think he’s one of the best contemporary Australian writers, and very underrated by the general public. And yay for famous relatives!

  8. Maree K says:

    I found Wonders of a godless world disappointing. I really wanted to like it because it’s clear that McGahan was taking risks with writing it and trying to explore new territory for himself as a writer. But for me it didn’t work because I could sense McGahan’s disbelief in his own writing as a strong undercurrent in the text. I’m a big fan of magic realism but this book didn’t work for me. I just didn’t buy it. Plus it needed another decent edit. But I’ll continue to read McGahan’s works (I still haven’t got around to reading White Earth yet) because he is willing to take risks with his writing.

  9. it really is that good isn’t it. it is the best australian novel i have read

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Yeah. I still sell it to people at work, proclaiming it as such. I hope they don’t think I’m too crazy…

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