THE BURIAL. By Courtney Collins.
Allen & Unwin. 288pp. $27.99.
Reviewer: FELICITY PLUNKETT
''If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?'' One of the first questions posed by the narrator of The Burial, these words frame a meditation about the disintegration of bodies and the patience of dirt because ''Eventually, teeth and skin and twists of bone will all be given to it''. This ''lesson of dirt'' is one the narrator has learned during a single day of life. The narrator remembers the day's squall and rain, and Jessie, a mother tasting of rust and death, furiously digging in the dirt where she will soon bury her baby.
The unlikely narratorial premise of a buried narrating baby is fraught with dangers, so it is part of the wonder of this debut novel that Collins generally evades them. And since the story centres on Jessie's reckless courage, her many evasions, and those who track them, this narrative strategy seems apt. The buried child tracks the story of a lost mother from beneath the land, while Jessie, a character based on the bushranger Jessie Hickman, shifts and flees across the landscape.
At first the child hopes for the love of its mother, but her only gentle words occur when she slits its throat. From here, the narratorial voice pursues Jessie, comforted by dirt but ''tormented and longing for all and everything around her''. One of the novel's three epigraphs is from Pablo Neruda's Tonight I Can Write from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair: ''My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.'' The unnamed, murdered child becomes a voice of longing that somehow has the capacity to know and remember ''all and everything'' about its murdering mother. It contains the soul's dissatisfaction and the scope of a narrative spoken to break through imposed silence. It collects and articulates the longing of all who pursue Jessie, developing its omniscience the further she retreats.
It remembers Jessie's birth, and the love of her father Septimus, the abundant preface to a life of loss. It recalls the deaths of her parents and her time as a circus performer, then the various forms of entrapment she experiences and evades. The worst of these is an arrangement with the baby's father, Fitzgerald Henry, to whose care as guardian and employer Jessie is entrusted after a spell in jail.
The narrator interleaves this history with images of Jessie's present, fleeing the murder of Fitz and his child. Shadowing Jessie, too, is Jack Brown, also employed by Fitz to steal horses. Jack loves Jessie and his silent pursuit of her counterpoints the child's noisy stasis.
The novel combines its historical narrative with these experiments. While on the surface The Burial resembles a dominant strand of Australian fiction concerned with re-imagining historical figures and events, its oddness and lyricism place it closer to recent novels that probe and query the possibilities of historical fiction. The Burial exemplifies historiographic metafiction with its doubt and occlusions. The vociferous murdered newborn, along with a key narrative coincidence, keeps ideas of artifice in focus.
And because dirt is made to speak, in this novel, layers of story and the idea of what remains become its focus. The narrator contemplates ''layers upon layers of fossilised things and rotting matter'' that criss-cross the way characters do above ground. None of these meditations slows the narrative. The story of Jessie's adventures, many in the company of her horse Houdini, builds to a portrait of a resourceful and energetic woman. That the portrait is her child's creation reminds us of the elisions this entails. One of these involves another child imagining himself abandoned by Jessie, and later faced with the question of her capture or recapture.
Somehow, more poignant that the child's expression of longing, it is other characters' balancing of loss and recuperation that give the novel its resonance: Jack Brown's mute and loyal pursuit of Jessie through the bush, an elderly woman's shrine to the babies she has miscarried or delivered stillborn and the glimmer of hope in a cross-dressing girl told by Jessie that she must call herself whatever she wants to, whatever feels true.
Collins' novel was short-listed for the 2009 Australian Vogel Literary Award, a year in which the prize was shared by Lisa Lang's Utopian Man and Kristel Thornell's Night Street.