Sebastian Smee

Formal feeling comes good

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Deborah Robertson

Sceptre, pp. 293, £

Contemporary Australian fiction, like Australian film, is known more for its exuberance and antic energy than its reticence and restraint. Deborah Robertson’s Careless, a first novel that has already won her acclaim in her own country, is a marvellous correction to the stereotype.

Robertson’s ingredients are simple, but disparate: right to the end, one is not quite sure how they are going to combine. This uncertainty gives the novel an intricate atmosphere of floating suspense.

In a moment of murderous rage and insanity, a man drives his truck into a children’s playgroup. Among those killed is the young son of Lily, a neglectful single mother. His older sister, Pearl, survives, and much of the novel is concerned with how Pearl comes to terms with what has happened.

Another character, a louche contemporary artist called Adam, gets involved when a civic body, spurred by the inevitable public outpouring of emotion, decides to erect a memorial to the children, and to victimised children in general. Adam wants the commission. A rampant narcissist, his taste for sensation is mixed up with deeper, itchier yearnings that make him the novel’s most interesting character. As a child he learned, in the author’s words, ‘to cultivate a small, cold place in his heart in order to experience something that interested him’.

He starts an affair with Lily. One day, rummaging around under her bed, he discovers her little boy’s ashes, which gives him an idea for his memorial. The idea is repulsive, naturally; but in an era that has seen sculptors gain notoriety by making sculpture out of their own frozen blood, it is far from implausible.

Finally, there is Sonia, the elderly widow of a Danish designer, still mourning her husband in a dusky, pensive way. She lets Adam use her husband’s old workshop at the back of her house as a studio.

Other characters, never less than convincingly drawn, elaborate the web of connections. But Robertson is careful to resist the kind of concocted serendipities that motor many novels and movies with multiple plot strands. Occasionally one becomes overly conscious of the author’s thematic interests — in grief, in selfishness, in carelessness — dictating the characters’ actions. Nonetheless, the writing is so crisp, the sentiments so grown-up, that the story’s forward momentum never wanes.

The book is partly concerned with the limits of empathy, so it is appropriate that the tense is present and the prose is pared back, with something admirably icy at its heart. Prior to this novel, the 47-year-old Robertson had published only short stories. Interesting, then, that in reading Careless I was reminded more than once of the reticence and bracing absence of sentimentality in Canada’s great short story writer, Alice Munro.

One of the book’s leitmotifs is a shared interest among several of the characters in Fallingwater, the famous house in Pennsylvania designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Fallingwater was built more than 20 years after Wright’s servant set fire to his house and murdered seven people with an axe, including Wright’s lover Mamah Cheney.

All this melodrama is kept discreetly in the background by Robertson. But to the extent that it figures in the narrative it is beautifully handled. Apt, too, is the line from Emily Dickinson, uttered by a psychologist during one of Pearl’s counselling sessions: ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes.’