Memories are stored vertically, fluid and accessible from the strangest depths. … [T]o explore was to salvage, to record a story was to remember one.
Rebecca Winterer won the 2016 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize for The Singing Ship, her sophisticated story of the afflictions and creative transformations that shape the Pilgrim family of Mt. Isaac, Queensland over the course of six decades. However, the book opens with an even longer view – a cosmic one – via a prologue offering a millennia-old perspective on human life. An epilogue returns full circle, telescoping from the Pilgrims back out to the enormity of the earth without belittling the value of the individual. In between those two points of vastness, we spend time on the dusty Australian ground with four characters who nurse their traumas with some unusual obsessions.
Eleven-year-old Bernadette emulates her hero, nineteenth-century explorer Charles Sturt, by trekking out into the bush with a log book and carefully amassed provisions. Younger sister Jane combats her nightmares by focusing on stories of the saints and constructing little altars, “earnestly fabricating solace and safe havens.” Already the signs of who they’ll grow up to be are evident – Bernadette an award-winning historian, and Jane a nun. But the road there will not be easy: Winterer plants tiny hints of an attack the girls suffer out in the bush.
Meanwhile, the girls’ father, Robert, admits to a sexual peccadillo with a customer at his department store and has a nervous breakdown. Their mother Audrey, an unfulfilled housewife with creative ambitions, responds with affairs of her own but also embarks on her magnum opus, an enormous quilt decorated with her button collection. One day the quilt will be part of the permanent folk art collection at the National Gallery in Canberra. For now it’s like an echo of the bowerbird nest Bernadette finds: a visual display of newfound confidence.
The novel follows the Pilgrims from perhaps the late 1950s through to the present day; and from drought-plagued Mt. Isaac to the university where Bernadette teaches and the convent where Jane lives. There will be more losses along the way – deaths and broken relationships – but these characters keep reinventing themselves to survive. In two cases name changes are symbolic of leaving a previous life behind: we learn that Robert chose the new surname Pilgrim when he escaped from his father’s hotel-cum-brothel, to signify his eagerness in setting out on his life’s journey; and when Jane takes her vows she becomes Sister Ava.
I was impressed by how much ground this novel covers in just 210 pages. It takes in so many weighty topics: mental illness, adultery, sexual assault, bereavement, suicide, art, history, legacy and culture. Perhaps for that reason, I found that I had to parcel it out into small chunks, reading just 10 pages or so at a time. The chronology can be difficult to follow – unspecified lengths of time pass between the sections and the narrative skips back and forth, such that I longed for date headings to help me orient myself. But some of this is deliberate, I’m sure: as in Virginia Woolf’s work, the past bleeds into the present, with memory and action sometimes indistinguishable. Indeed, one part is entitled “The Voyage Out”; though I’m unfamiliar with that Woolf novel, I had To the Lighthouse in mind while reading.
Winterer’s writing also reminded me of Sarah Moss’s, especially her pair of historical novels, due to the theme of obsessions and vocations – the things that distract you versus those that lead you to what really matters in life. I particularly liked the descriptions of Australian flora and fauna, whether used to set a scene or as part of unique metaphors, like “a huge termite mound, the orangey color of glaze on the cream buns at the school tuck shop.”
The title itself has metaphorical significance, referring to a sculpture of Captain Cook’s Endeavor, sited on a headland over Keppel Bay. It’s “white as bleached cuttlebone” and fitted with organ pipes so that when the wind passes through it creates an uncanny music. Later on Winterer likens the sculpture to the human body. That’s one of the images that will stick with me from this dreamy novel: of music emerging from the detritus of troubled lives.
The Singing Ship was published by Del Sol Press on July 21st. My thanks to the author for sending a free copy for review.