Review | Wednesday 02 September 2009
Cate Kennedy is one of Australia’s best known and loved short story writers. In the past decade, she has won most of the country’s major short story awards (including The Age Short Story competition twice) and revitalised the short story form with the success of her debut collection, Dark Roots. Now, she makes the transition to the longer form with her debut novel, The World Beneath – a beautifully written novel of ideas with vibrant characters and fraught relationships that savvily questions the way we live now.
Sandy and Rich, long estranged, met while protesting against the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania in the early 1980s. They separated ten years later, when their daughter Sophie was a baby. Now Sophie is a teenage ‘emo Goth’ fighting the uncertainty of life with flighty hippie Sandy with her scarily adult composure and a badly hidden eating disorder that provides her with a modicum of control. Rich – a travelling photographer and part-time editor of infomercials – has barely seen Sophie since he left, too-easily accepting taking Sandy’s parting threat that he’d never see his daughter again. Now, on the eve of her fifteenth birthday, he proposes an extended father-daughter hiking trip deep in the Tasmanian wilderness as a bonding experience. It’s a trip that – along with the Franklin Dam protest, which both Sandy and Rich see as the defining moment in their lives – will prove another definitive moment for all of them.
Kennedy has a remarkable affinity for place, and both the fictional Daylesford-like commodified country town where Sandy and Sophie live and remote Tasmania are brilliantly realised. ‘At first it seemed like a good thing to have so many cafes,’ reflects Sandy on the changes that have taken place in her town, ‘Then suddenly you turned around and saw that the old butcher shop was a day spa.’ This novel is similarly scathing about the ‘wilderness industry’ and the way that people experience the natural beauty of Tasmania as something to conquer, or a trophy experience. People want wilderness with a kiosk and good coffee; they want the breathtaking experience of the tourist brochures, not the reality. The inevitably disappointing and unrealistic wilderness experience is just one example of the way Kennedy’s characters build up significant moments (for example, birth) with strict expectations and are crestfallen when they don’t deliver.
Best of all though, Kennedy skilfully portrays a triangle of relationships in which the characters are blinded by familiarity and self-absorption. Sophie is at first dazzled by her absent father’s calculated cool, mistaking his self-absorption for giving her space. Sandy doesn’t see her daughter’s problems nor try to see or understand her as she really is, unable to face the ways in which she might have failed as a parent. Rich is so busy trying to present the version of himself that he thinks others want to see that he is unable to forge genuine connections – and too preoccupied with the impression he’s making to really see others.
The World Beneath is about the way that our anxieties, accelerated by consumer culture and its obsession with surfaces, get in the way of living genuine lives. It’s about the barriers and paths to real relationships. It’s about the possibility of redemption and the value of honestly trying to do the best you can – in life and relationships – rather than blindly flailing for perfection.
This is a poignant, thoughtful novel that tackles modern life and families head-on – an impressive debut from a wonderful writer.