The Book of Thistles
Noëlle Janaczewska tells us up front that she’s “interested in unaccompanied language. In collage. In reveries and writings which switch register and jump-cut across genres.” She’s not alone. Didn’t George Saunders just get Man Bookered for something along those lines?
Form and fabric, root and branch, Janaczewska aims to unsettle the reading experience. An awarded playwright, poet and essayist, she certainly has the chops to pull off what she calls “part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice on the page”.
Her subject is ostensibly the humble thistle, but the book “is as much about place as it is about plants”. The National Library, I notice, recommends the book be catalogued under Culture, Home, Emigration and Immigration – no mention of Botany or Environmental Weeds. Coming to Australia in the ’80s she has, like the thistle, thrived far from her native habitat. Revisiting Hertfordshire, where she grew up, she scouts for thistles on roadside verges and, in the grip of grief, retreats to Thistly Marsh.
In Australia, thistles are easy to find and, despite the author’s disavowals, a reader seeking an engaging history of the thistle-as-weed could find their thrill here. Janaczewska tracks nearly two centuries of efforts to eradicate the botanical invader. Over time, we learn, laws aimed at outlawing thistles were expanded so that any undesirable species – blackberries, gorse and scores of others – could be declared thistles, “on account of their obnoxious or poisonous character and rapid powers of multiplication”.
Janaczewska riffs on the plant’s “cultural and social life”, its “disruptive tendencies”, its outcast status and tenacity. The poet in her glories in the thistle’s variety – common names such as blessed, creeping and melancholy. She engages the reader with a voice that’s performative without being stagey. Of the doomed explorer Leichhardt and his party, she writes “nothing was ever found of them. Not a buckle, not a button, not a bone.” Elsewhere: “The land was thistle-sick” and “the thistle. Emphatic as sunlight.”
The Book of Thistles has jump-cuts and switchbacks, collage elements such as dropped-in news cuttings, reveries that might be poems or mislaid pages of a script, rogue interjections from the next room. Absent the narrative impetus, can a construction such as this sustain a reader’s interest? Yea or nay, the book has real charm, originality and a subversive kick. FL
UWAP, 250pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "Noëlle Janaczewska, The Book of Thistles". Subscribe here.