In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey
Ceridwen Dovey won the inaugural Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction in 2014 with her book of short stories, Only the Animals, an audacious and original work of imagination. Dovey’s new novel confirms she is one of the most exciting writers working in Australia today.
Beginning as a curious revival of correspondence between Royce, an aging philanthropist, and Vita, a filmmaker half his age who has been a beneficiary of his wealth, this two-handed narrative is quite unlike anything I’ve read in recent times.
What does Royce want with Vita, who so clearly demanded no further contact from him? Why is Vita writing back? And who is Kitty? Their compelling back-and-forth builds to become a riveting series of meditations that traverse topics as diverse as belonging in post-Apartheid South Africa, the excavation of life in ancient Pompeii, the ethics of ethnographic filmmaking, the dark obsessions of unrequited desire, the power that money can buy, and the neuroses that it cannot hide. It’s an expansive and exploratory novel that I found genuinely intellectually stimulating (an overused phrase, but I can’t think of anything else so apt).
There is a moment in the book when Vita explains that the word ‘ambitious’ is the greatest insult that can be levelled at a work of art because it suggests the transparency of the artist’s vision, and the failure of the work to meet it. Yet without ambition, art languishes; it repeats the same tropes; its subjects become tired, its audiences weary. But this book – this book is ambitious, though not in the sense that Vita describes; rather, it offers the exhilaration of reading something genuinely bold and original. Its ambitions succeed because of the work of a fearless writer who wants to say something new to a reader she demands be involved in the discourse. In the Garden of the Fugitives is a remarkable book and its author is a star.