I bet most of you haven’t heard of Jeremy Chambers. Well, I hadn’t, anyway, but thankfully that particular period in my life is over, because I reckon this guy’s going to be turning plenty of literary heads before too long, and here I am, getting in on the ground floor. Go, me. And go, you – go to the bookshops, that is, and get your mitts on a copy of The Vintage and the Gleaning, Chamber’s debut novel. Now, I’ll admit this isn’t a perfect book, and it probably won’t be the best thing you’ll read all year, but I’ll bet it’ll make the top ten for quite a lot of you. Although it’s got its flaws (more on this in a moment), it’s also got some superb writing, a brilliant setting, and a tone of awful melancholia that’ll have you weeping into your hardbacks.
Set in the vineyards and pubs of a small anonymous town in the deserts of rural Australia, The Vintage and the Gleaning is narrated by Smithy, a vineyard labourer, widower, former sheep-shearer and alcoholic who’s struck up an unusual friendship with Charlotte Clayton, the abused wife of a notorious local thug and murderer who’s just been released from prison. Smithy, his organs destroyed by years of hard-drinking, has recently given up the booze on doctor’s orders; now he sits in the pub after work and observes his friends, co-workers and neighbours drink, talk and fight, whilst back in his house, Charlotte hides from her husband and tries to decide what to do with her life. There’s not much action here; the whole thing takes place over a few hot days, with Smithy working the vines and watching the life of the town, and Charlotte skulking and worrying. Everything else takes place off-screen (a neighbour’s death, the violent destruction of the main street by a local gang) or in flashback. Smithy‘s narration is mostly focused on the natural world, domestic objects (his dead wife’s cake-stand, Charlotte’s hairbrush) and on his own daily routine at the vineyard and the pub as he watches his colleagues argue and drink. There is a certain amount of plotting – what will Charlotte’s husband do when he discovers where his wife is staying? – but the real point of the book isn’t what happens, but the world that’s revealed through the subtle accumulation of miserable, grimy and repetitive detail. The poverty and hopelessness of the characters’ lives is seen through the eyes of a man who’s recently sober and newly aware of what he’s lost and wasted and what’s wasted and soiled in the town and people around him. It’s a reflective book; both Smithy and Charlotte are trying to come to terms with lost pasts and uncertain futures. Smithy, raised by Catholic nuns in an orphanage for aboriginal children (he’s not black and we don’t find out what brought him there), destroyed his marriage, his health and his long-term memory with drink; Charlotte ran away from a privileged life (landowner parents, a private boarding school) to marry Brett Clayton, a violent gangster who beat her, and she feels like she’s thrown away her whole adult life. Both of them hover on the brink of uncertainty, though inCharlotte’s case there’s the possibility of future choice, while all Smithy has is remorse and an unhappy understanding that very little lies before him.
Chambers’ huge strength is his descriptive power, in Smithy’s observations of the land and people about him. It’s blunt and simple language, but it works: ‘A flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos like the bare branches of an ancient gum.’ ‘The sloughing bark of the ghost gum flutters, mottled pink and grey, its cracked edges scorched.’ ‘Magpies fly over the building and the crowd, birdcalls and men’s talk all together in the morning.’ Then there’s Smithy’s experience of his town‘s social life, now that he’s no longer drinking – the endless crowd of interchangeable men that fill the town‘s pubs. The life he shows us is depressing and animalistic:
‘They all drink and all the men are drinking and their faces shine with the drink and their eyes and lips are with drink, drunk and dead drunk and talking loudly. Voices slur and stools scrape. They hawk and spit into the trough, their noise like dull constant thunder. Men sprawl out around the bar and the tables, sitting and standing and leaning, some men red-faced and angry, others cheerful, content with the faces of children. They lope and stagger and stride towards the bar.’
Again, Chambers’ language is simple: monosyllabic with basic sentence structure and repetitive rhythms. It’s easy to read and seems a little monotonous at first, but it builds into a crescendo of awful and beautiful detail. Smithy’s an observant, astute and very memorable narrator. And Chambers’ dialogue is the best I’ve read in a very long time. This is stand-out prose.
So what didn’t I like? Well, I’d have preferred a little bit more of a plot running throughout, but I can live without that because the language seduced me. But there’s an extended monologue fromCharlottein the latter part of the book that grated. Her story’s a good one and it contrasts well with Smithy’s, showing the different ways a life can drift and collapse, but her voice isn’t that distinct and I found myself missing Smithy and wishing five pages or so could’ve been knocked off that section. It’s not a huge problem, but coming so near the end I found it left more of a negative impression than it might have done otherwise. And, well, that’s about it.
Any Cop?: This isn’t one for people who value a strong plot, but the writing is superb and the atmosphere and characterisation is excellent. If you’re into brilliantly miserable and descriptive literary fiction, you’ll love it. I did. And now the wait for his next book begins…