The second publication from the fledgling Dodo Ink house – following hard on the heels of Dodge & Burn, the acclaimed debut by Serafina Madsen – sounds, on the surface, a mite familiar. Sean Rabin’s debut, Wood Green (which, you should know, was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction earlier this year), concerns a young writer going to work for an older writer. It’s a good device (who doesn’t like an exploration of putative fictional alter egos, right?) but it’s one that Philip Roth used all the way back in The Ghost Writer in 1979. Plus: you know, writers writing about writing. It’s a trope that even semi-regular readers can’t but help approach with a miniature groan. Wood Green is good, though, sharp and tricksy and funny and well written and quickly – far quicker than you’d expect – any slight reservations you may have about the set up disappear like smoke in a force 10 gale.
The writers in question are Michael Pollard, a young PhD student who has secured a job as amanuensis to the subject of his degree, and Lucian Clarke, an ageing, difficult writer who has published a half dozen or so acclaimed but challenging books that have a steady if possibly diminishing readership. Michael gives up city life in Brisbane and flies to Wood Green in Tasmania, a somewhat secluded rural community. We’re barely a couple of chapters in before Rabin’s restless way with a narrative switches from Michael to a cabbie (and we hear from a number of cabbies in the early stages of the book). From here it’s a hop, skip and a jump to Maureen and Tim who run the local store – Maureen attempting to deal with the end of her marriage and the end of her affair with Lucian, Tim looking for a buyer for the store so the pair of them can kiss their mountain life goodbye. We hear from Michael’s ex Rachel who is worried about him and why he upped sticks without saying anything, Carl a crook from South Africa looking to lie low and possibly build a new life, Andrew the landlord of the local B&B and a man desperately in need of a friend and Paul, the gentle, lonely local innkeeper.
All of which might make Wood Green sound like an amiable soap opera – and certainly there is an amiability to proceedings even though there are characters here committing adultery, suffering from seeming early onset dementia and getting away with large scale crime – but there is a lot more to the book than this. For one thing, we have Michael’s job which is to construct Lucian’s life from the scraps and patches that fill one of the rooms of his house (Lucian is irascible as all hell and he point blank refuses Michael’s reasonable request to, you know, just answer a few questions) – and so follow Lucian’s life before Tasmania in brief note form (Wood Green is composed of about 100 chapters few of which run to more than a couple of pages – this too is one way in which the book keeps itself on its toes). The push and pull of the relationship between Michael and Lucian is nicely done too, with the base of power shifting often enough to keep the narrative lively – and, of course, there is the fluid weaving of characters between these two (Maureen, for instance, is a character whose voice is a pleasure to read, she’s tough and wanton, devoted and pragmatic, and the vacillations she undergoes, in terms of both Lucian and Tim feel very truthful and real). It is the strangeness of Wood Green, however, that really elevates the book (Lucian explains,
“Making a reader feel secure in their values and ideas was not the purpose of his writing. In fact he was committed to achieving the exact opposite. To destabilising his readers’ ability in the hope that once they looked away from his pages they might see the world anew”).
The strangeness first surfaces in the slightly muso obsessions that Michael develops in Lucian’s company (and Rabin is terrific when he is writing about music:
“At first the effect was disorientating. Like an electrical storm erupting inside the house. Setting off waves of overdriven static and whistling fireworks in all directions. But as the album progressed and Lucian’s ears acclimatised to the astringent alien electronics, he began to notice a sculptural technique at work, and a maverick chamber music”).
But in the latter portions of the book, things get very strange indeed – it’s fair to say that Wood Green takes something of a supernatural turn – and Rabin is cool and subtle, never over-explaining, always offering just enough for you grasp the nettle of strangeness. By the close of play, Rabin reveals himself to be a writer of the Michel Faber type, able to fashion a narrative that is compelling, funny, humane and bizarre without ever losing his grip on the reader’s hand. We’d recommend this book heartily and will be looking out for whatever Rabin turns his hand to next.
Any Cop?: It’s as different as different can be from Dodge & Burn – both calmer and weirder if that were possible – but it shows us that Dodo Ink is a publishing house to watch with an eagle’s eye. Those people are putting out some good stuff…