Ninety years after they were thought to have died heroically in the Great War, the stretcher-bearer Simpson and his donkey journey through country Victoria, performing minor miracles and surviving on offerings left at war memorials. They are making their twenty-ninth, and perhaps final, attempt to find the country’s famed Inland Sea.
On the road north from Melbourne, Simpson and his weary donkey encounter a broke single mother, a suicidal Vietnam veteran, a refugee who has lost everything, an abused teenager and a deranged ex-teacher. These are society’s downtrodden, whom Simpson believes can be renewed by the healing waters of the sea.
In Simpson Returns, Wayne Macauley sticks a pin in the balloon of our national myth. A concise satire of Australian platitudes about fairness and egalitarianism, it is timely, devastating and witheringly funny.
Ninety years after his death in World War I, Jack Simpson is still alive, still donning his uniform, still helping the sick and still trudging alongside his donkey, Murphy. In Wayne Macauley’s novella he’s a ghost-like wisp, sustaining himself with the offerings of locals and his search for the inland sea, which he believes is off somewhere in the centre of the country.
What seems like a bizarre and possibly ill-fated adventure quickly gets side-tracked, literally, when Simpson encounters people in need of his help. Not everyone can see him, apart from those in need, and for the most part the book is made up of five of these encounters. There’s a teenage runaway, a refugee, a Vietnam veteran, a single mother, and a deranged ex-teacher, all of whom share their background stories with Simpson, as they receive his help.
But what kind of help does Simpson offer? Part carnival shyster, part holistic nurse, Simpson can only really offer temporary salves and the chance to hear out those that society has failed. Of one patient he says: ‘The scars will heal, eventually. Perhaps they will pick up where they left off? And perhaps not. The truth is it was no longer any concern of mine … That was the best I could do.’
Jack Simpson’s search for an inland sea is mostly a distraction from the more pressing issues at hand. Macauley’s use of an other-worldly narrative to bring real-world problems into focus is probably one of Simpson Returns’s greatest strengths. The help of a ghostly war hero and donkey, offered to those that we seem to unnecessarily punish or deny help, becomes a fitting analogy for the particularly cruel Australia in which we currently live. Macauley’s novella has the sheen of a comedy, but it should also be given credit for being so uncomfortably sad.
Chris Somerville is part of the online Readings team.
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