Sing Fox to Me
Twin brothers, missing children, madness, ghosts and the wilderness – Sarah Kanake’s Sing Fox to Me is a novel steeped in archetype and Gothic motif. The book tells the story of twin teenagers, Samson and Jonah, who go to live with their paternal grandfather, Clancy, in the middle of nowhere in west Tasmania. Clancy lives alone on top of a mountain, the same mountain at which his daughter, River, disappeared as a child, never to be seen again. The disappearance continues to haunt him and his grief expresses itself in peculiar ways, including in an obsession with Tasmanian tigers. Meanwhile, the alienated, embittered Jonah develops his own morbid preoccupations while Samson, who has Down syndrome, finds friendship, courage and creative possibility.
Kanake is busy in the story’s first quarter, setting an ominous scene and laying the groundwork of two intriguing, intersecting plots. Then the wilderness comes into sharper focus and the pace of unfolding drama slows (or sags, depending on your enthusiasm for natural description). Much of this novel is Tasmanian back country in extreme close-up and Kanake’s descriptions are, at times, exquisitely eerie. In a novel with some biblical references and themes, Clancy’s mountain has much in common with the Old Testament God. It is divine, inscrutable, eternal and often merciless – swallowing up characters, seeing everything, outlasting everyone.
Perhaps the bleakest theme here is that of human inadequacy. Kanake has a cool, unsentimental eye for family relationships, and this novel is especially fascinating in its treatment of a taboo topic: parental and sibling indifference. There’s also a sensitively handled exploration of the possibility and impossibility of authentic self-expression. Clancy’s grief-stricken silence – perhaps a product of a restrictive rural masculinity – strangles and warps him. This is contrasted with Samson’s gifts for self-expression, especially through sign language. The most compelling element of this novel, though, is its treatment of the curious power dynamics between humans and other species. Humans have certain natural advantages over animals, often exploited in grotesque ways. But animals have a unique hold on the human unconscious as figures of fear and longing.
Samson’s heroic potential is finally tested in some rather melodramatic scenes. But the subtle flirtations with magic realism make for a resonant ending to a very creepy debut. SR
Affirm, 272pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 5, 2016 as "Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to Me". Subscribe here.