I don’t think I need to write here about the state of the Queensland literary scene after the axing of the QPLA, so I won’t. What I will say is that Annah Faulkner has the dubious honour of being the last person to win the Emerging Author’s Award as part of the QPLA – something that intrigued me about this novel. I am also keenly interested in novels set in Papua New Guinea – my dad was born there, so I feel like I should find out more about it.
Bertie’s family is normal – Mum, Dad, older brother, herself. Bertie, though, has a secret. She can see colours. Not just the ones you and I see, but the colours of people. She knows when they’re lying, when they’re telling the truth. Unsurprisingly, she likes drawing and painting as a result. But when her family moves to Papua New Guinea for her father’s new job, cracks in the perfect family unit will being to appear, and the family will be forever changed.
Anyone who has read Paul D Carter’s Vogel award-winning novel, Eleven Seasons, may find some structural similarities in Faulkner’s novel. This might be a long bow to draw – after all, bildungsroman all tend to follow a similar structure – but with both of these debut novels fresh in my mind, it’s interesting to see what each author has done with the genre. Both have a slow build up to the main tension – for Bertie, she grows up, but still wants to draw and paint. Her mother, who has such grand dreams for her daughter, cannot see how art could be in any way useful for a career, and means well. Of course, well-meaning parents often don’t get it right, and so the tension grows. It ramps up to quite an intense point, and it’s a credit to Faulkner that this remains engaging.
The fights between Bertie and her mother will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a house with a mother and daughter. Bertie, still testing out the limits of her new-found maturity, refuses to listen to her mother when told to stop painting. In her defence, it makes her very happy, and her mother is less than helpful in explicating what it is that Bertie has done wrong. The epic fights between these two characters are worryingly realistic. The blurb promises an epic coming to blows, and while this is kind of true, there is a sense of relief by the end of the novel when family secrets are revealed, and the family is finally allowed to come to terms with the past.
I really enjoyed the inclusion of the art bits. It’s safe to say I know absolutely nothing about art, but the symbol it takes in this novel – that art can become an escape for a young, awkward child – makes it infinitely sympathetic, even if you don’t know anything about art. What intrigued me most was the idea that art is not just talent – Bertie’s gift must be nurtured, with several different people influencing her in ways she could never have imagined.
One of the great strengths of this novel is the vivacity of the supporting characters. One in particular deserve special mention – Bertie’s artist aunt, who lives in Sydney, having never been married, with seemingly no desire to rectify the problem. Her constant lady friend, though, gives cause for concern for Bertie’s mother, and though, in true 1950s style, the word “lesbian” is used, everyone – except young Bertie – knows what goes on in that house. It is to the aunt that Bertie turns when she wants art advice – here is a grown woman who hasn’t made a career out of art, but still does it and enjoys it – something Bertie’s mother has told her simply cannot happen.
Interestingly, the thing I was looking forward too most ended up being the weakest part of the novel. Though Faulkner does set her story in Port Moresby, I’m not sure it really matters. There are not a whole cast of PNG people in the novel, and much of the action is focused on the small Australian contingent of people living in what is essentially a gated community. The few PNG characters tend to be house servants. There are some vaguely token moments where Bertie asks her parents why she isn’t allowed to go to school with the black kids, postcolonial politics take a backseat to the domestic drama at the forefront.
This is a minor quibble, though, and it is a small weak point in an otherwise excellent first novel. The focus is, quite rightly, on the relationship between mother and daughter, leaving almost everything else at the periphery. It’s a brave choice, but it works, leaving the reader with a sense that Faulkner is probably someone to watch.