Hovering by Rhett Davis

Alice has landed back on home turf, and she’s certain the taxi from the airport is going in the wrong direction to get her into Fraser, the fictional Australian city that she’s returning to after 16 years of life lived overseas. She’s vaguely heard that things – buildings mainly – are literally moving around in the city, so does that explain the change in the road’s coordinates? She arrives at the house she grew up in, now the home of her sister Lydia. The reunion is not joyous; Lydia still holds onto the tensions that began with Alice’s escape to the excitements promised by the international cities of the world. These days, Lydia has an escape of her own, spending many hours in the parallel reality of an online game world. Lydia’s teenaged son is also in the picture, but he has taken a vow of silence and only communicates in text form. But Alice is home to escape again: an art collaboration that promised a utopian artistic future has gone awry. She’s being investigated. It could be serious.

This is a hugely imaginative and brilliantly executed literary debut, written in a register that is perhaps best described as surreal, but also very readable. Throughout the book, Davis toys with form, leading the reader through a variety of excursions in narrative mode, including text messages, chat rooms, HTML code, interview transcripts, hashtags, and other formats I’m not sure how to describe. Every single one of these experiments is a success; they are not a writerly conceit, but part of Davis’ careful querying of the ways in which we make our realities. Meanwhile, alongside the well-drawn characters and their personal dramas, is the city of Fraser, itself perhaps the book’s main character and moral heart. Davis uses its uncanny movements as a way of thinking through what it is that makes a city: buildings; people; community; culture; family; history; practice? A city’s emplacement is a quirk of fate, and in Australia’s case, the result of colonial violence. Cities are not forever destined to occupy their physical locations; and perhaps they shouldn’t stay where they are. And yet, and yet – we love our cities. They are our ground. Change, though inevitable and necessary, shakes our foundations.

In publishing, sometimes timing is a gift, and there is no better time than right now for Rhett Davis’ Hovering and its inventive take on our strange present. Before publication, it won the prestigious Unpublished Manuscript award at the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (which are held in January/February each year), but the relevance of the book’s themes has only grown since then, as our new lives have unfolded during the first two Covid years. Our own beloved city has become strange, decentralised, hollowed out, with many of the things that give it its identity shut down and moved online or lost altogether. Life itself has been surreal. As we rebuild, what is the place that we are (re-) making again? Its shape is not inevitable. Hovering is an exciting and dryly humorous book bursting with ideas that are held in the tight control of its talented author. I’ll be recommending it all year long.

Alison Huber is the head book buyer at Readings.

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Rhett Davis

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