Border Districts

Gerald Murnane

Border Districts
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Border Districts

Gerald Murnane

A new work by a master of contemporary Australian fiction, highly regarded overseas, but little-known here. Giramondo’s publication of Border Districts, and the retrospective volume Collected Short Fiction (early next year) is a collaboration with the distinguished New York publisher Farrar Straus Giroux.

Conceived as Gerald Murnane’s last work of fiction, Border Districts was written after the author moved from Melbourne to a small town on the western edge of the Wimmera plains, near the border with South Australia. The narrator of this fiction has made a similar move, from a capital city to a remote town in the border country, where he intends to spend the last years of his life. It is a time for exploring the enduring elements of his experience, as these exist in his mind, images whose persistence is assured, but whose significance needs to be rediscovered. Readers of Murnane’s earlier work will recognise some of these images: the dark-haired young woman at a window; the ancestral house set in grasslands; coloured glass, marbles, goldfish, the outfits of jockeys. Murnane’s images often draw their power from the light that falls upon them from a distant or mysterious source. But he also considers the possibility that the mind casts its own light, imbuing the images in the observer’s mind with the colours of his soul.

As Murnane’s narrator declares, ‘the mind is a place best viewed from borderlands'. In this work, Border Districts also refers to the border country between life and death; and there is another meaning, in the narrator’s discovery of others who might share his world, even though they enter it from a different direction, across the border districts which separate, or unite, two human beings.

Review

If you’ve ever read Gerald Murnane before, you’ll have some idea of what to expect with Border Districts, his thirteenth book and, apparently, his final work of fiction. It’s esoteric, thought-provoking and difficult to describe – for the purposes of this review, though, let’s call Border Districts a nonlinear meditation on the (nameless) narrator’s life in ‘mental images’.

The novel – or, as the narrator prefers to call it, ‘report’ – begins with a description of a church in the town that the author has just moved to. This inspires a reflection on his Catholic schooling in the 1950s, Christianity in general, the story of a priest he knew in the past, the loss of faith – all in the first 20 pages – without ever naming any places or people directly. The narrator’s voice is steady and controlled, the sentences beautifully and complexly constructed, such that you’re never quite sure what tangent the narrator’s mind will go off on next. Rather than a straightforwardly plotted story, Border Districts charts the movements of its narrator’s mind and memory.

Indeed, the narrator bears a suspicious resemblance to Murnane himself – he lives in a small town near the western border of Victoria, has never left his home state in his 70-plus years, and has an affinity for horse-racing. A short novel, it is nonetheless an immersive experience that demands to be read in one or two sittings. The 146 pages of text, uninterrupted by chapters or even paragraph breaks, carry you away with the author’s subconscious, marooning you on a long and remote road that you’re reluctant to stop on, for fear of getting lost. As a result, Border Districts is hard to put down; you’re compelled to keep moving forward, exploring ‘the borders of the mind’.


Kelsey Oldham works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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