In Ice, A 19th century entrepreneur is obsessed with overcoming death, after losing his father at two and his beloved first wife a year into their marriage. In the present day, a man writes the entrepeneur’s biography from the notes left by his comatose wife, hoping the story he has created will jolt her to consciousness. It’s disturbing for me to discover that a prominent Australian writer has already published a novel on similar themes to the one I’m writing. From a purely selfish point of view, you’ll forgive me for being glad Ice is not definitive enough to preclude another novel with resemblances of theme and milieu.
Nowra’s 2008 novel was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, but had mixed reviews. I think the criticisms are valid, but I was still fascinated by its Australian treatment of death and immortalities in the Victorian era. David Free (Quadrant, December 2009: p.23) is insightful about the novel’s flaws:
This stinginess with dialogue is connected to Nowra’s central vice: his practice of summarising the events of his story rather than dramatising them. His unit of conveying information isn’t the scene, but the drab prose précis. Again, this seems a bizarre technical sacrifice for a novelist to make. If reading a novel about an historical figure sounds like a more enticing proposition than reading a 300-page encyclopaedia entry about him, that’s because we expect the novelist to render his narrative in vivid scenes, to roll up his sleeves and plunge into the business of fictional evocation. Nowra not only doesn’t do this; he doesn’t even seem to try.
In trying to cover 58 years in the life of the central character, Malcolm McEacharn, summary is the default mode. It doesn’t read exactly like an encyclopedia or even a conventional biography, because we are brought inside Malcolm and other character’s minds; but it does read like fiction which is not fully imagined.
[SPOILER ALERT] Yet it’s crammed with fascinating plot developments, ‘tall-tales’, as one reviewer wrote, building on the actual life of Malcolm McEacharn. The iceberg Malcolm tows into Sydney Harbour at the beginning of the novel has, at its core, a preserved sailor. Malcolm attends seances to find his dead wife; collects bottled foetuses of every creature; digs up the bones of his father.
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