Books

Rodney Hall
A Stolen Season

Australia’s contribution to the Second Gulf War has not proved a fertile subject for literary fiction. Of the 75 books nominated for the Miles Franklin Award since 2003 there’s almost nothing about Iraq, Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction.

There have, of course, been plenty of nonfiction books about Australia and the “coalition of the willing”, and Australian writers of popular adventure stories do occasionally use post-invasion Iraq as the dusty backdrop for bloody thrills and detonative spills. Even our poets have wrestled with the implications of the long and deeply unpopular war. Jennifer Maiden and the late J. S. Harry spring to mind.

And, yes, it’s possible to read, say, Gail Jones’s Sorry or Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap or Brenda Walker’s The Wing of Night against the background of continuing conflict in the Middle East. But the last time a Miles Franklin Award-nominated book had any direct connection with Iraq was Joan London’s Gilgamesh – shortlisted in 2002. The date speaks for itself.

It’s a peculiar gap, especially when you consider how far British and particularly American fiction has explored every stage of the conflict, from the invasion to the surge. We don’t even have an equivalent to Ian McEwan’s Saturday, set during London’s massive anti-war rally. Is the invasion so irrelevant to contemporary Australian life?

Enter Rodney Hall. In his latest novel, A Stolen Season, Hall focuses on an Australian veteran who has undergone years of reconstructive surgery and therefore survived the horror of being blown up while escorting an investigative journalist around the city of Samarra in northern Iraq. (Samarra, the legendary place where appointments are made with death.) The journalist – a rigorous critic of the war – did not survive.

The damaged vet has at last been released to the care of his wife. It’s an awkward situation because the army doesn’t know that the couple separated before his deployment. In fact, neither of them ever took their marriage seriously; it was just a fun thing they got into when they were young and nothing mattered. Now she dreams of packing her bags and fleeing, escaping a responsibility that feels like a life sentence.

Hall’s description of the unhappy couple’s life together in a quiet suburb in Melbourne has restraint, together with a bit too much repetition in the depiction of the grind of getting by, but there are occasional flashes of poetry, lyrical fragments that highlight how little the one-time soldier resembles his former self in anything but his capacity to desire:

The green glass bowl on the windowsill fills with light – a specimen flask of the perfect – pure light, sufficient to itself. Is this what joy feels like? ... The wise clear transparency in a shell of pain? Out there through the window suburban houses stand around like big pieces of ancestral furniture.

Does this decorate a feeling with too much metaphor? The feeling comes through anyway. Unlike the bowl, the wounded hero stays broken. He relies – God help him – on a high-tech exoskeleton controlled by neural implants to get around. And this contraption is not just sci-fi: it has some factual basis as Hall explains in his acknowledgements.

He is empty of light and the rhythms of his life are irreparably twisted and broken. Even his voice is fractured. Words come slowly, with pain; it’s like picking tiny shrapnel from skin. But words are now his certain good. He starts blogging and appears on a popular television show. He wants to talk about those non-existent weapons of mass destruction. He wants to talk about the real reasons for the invasion. And he wants to find out who actually fired that deadly missile the day he was all but destroyed in Samarra.

Hall crosshatches this narrative with two other storylines that complement but don’t directly connect with the story of the couple hitched by disaster. First, there’s a somewhat paranoiac Australian woman visiting Mayan ruins somewhere on some coast of Central America. The exoticism of this episode allows Hall to shift up into a more visionary mode. Here he can invoke mystical energies and consecrated fires, great forces beyond the ken of cause and effect, and he can contemplate with what poetry he can muster the stone certainty of annihilation as history becomes fate.

And then, in a brief chapter in the middle of the book – placed rather like the small temple on the uppermost platform of a Mayan pyramid – we get the story of a disgruntled fellow from a shadowy family of fabulous wealth with its hands on the secret levers of power. His revenge on his own corrupt kinfolk involves a long-lost book of Turner’s erotic sketches and provides a very entertaining comic intermission in this grim world of doom and gloom and endless scar tissue.

Although it is an Iraq war book, A Stolen Season is no Australian equivalent to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds or Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, which give that recent bit of history a tragic resonance. Despite the focus on physical and psychological injury, Hall does not really achieve a full catharsis, and it’s hard to see the book as emotionally compelling in any realistic way.

The hero’s memories of his frontline exploits in Iraq, for example, sound a bit like the confections of a first-person shooter video game, and there is just too much hamminess in the scenes between the shattered soldier and his ambitious political cousin. Even the way the once and future wife is forever whooshing around the house on demon wings, sobbing behind closed doors and feeling wretched about the world gets a bit much.

Still, we could do with more novels about Australia’s support for American military adventures. And Hall does have the excuse that he is attempting to do something that few others in Australia have dared, and from that point of view his exaggerations and distortions and his attempts at the deepest shade of black humour are forgivable.

There is, in any case, no doubting his seriousness or the seriousness of his subject.  JR

Picador, 342pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "Rodney Hall, A Stolen Season". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR