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.