Books

Steven Carroll
The Year of the Beast

The sixth and final novel of Steven Carroll’s Glenroy series takes us back to where this intergenerational saga begins, to Melbourne in 1917, and to Maryanne, a 40-year-old woman who is pregnant with an illegitimate child; a child who is “the egg from which a story would be hatched”.

When we meet her, Maryanne is stepping off a tram into surging crowds. It is the height of the debate around a second conscription referendum and the two sides are clashing violently in the streets in front of competing speakers. Maryanne is swept along by the crowd and deposited in front of the Town Hall where she witnesses this battle being waged between two choirs, one on the steps of the Town Hall, and another on a platform in front of a banner displaying a giant “No” dripping with blood. The choirs fight to be heard, Archbishop Daniel Mannix steps onto the platform and commands the crowd’s attention and then, it seems to her, he catches her eye, and sees her for what she really is: a “fallen woman! … bulging with her sin”.

Maryanne escapes, but this nightmarish experience – which is rendered suitably dreamlike if understatedly so in Carroll’s measured, rhythmic prose – establishes several recurring themes of the novel: Maryanne’s determination to have her baby despite her shame around its conception; the sense she is born ahead of her time; and her horror at the madness the war has inspired in people around her.

The time she lives in, we learn on page one, is a “nasty one. Ugly. Brutish.” More than that, though, Maryanne has a Dante-ish vision while caught up in the crowd, of this unthinking mass of people as a “single organism, with thousands of arms, legs and eyes … A giant thing. A beast.” She calls it a “storybook beast”: “as if each of those faces has reached into the depths of its darkness and brought forth the beast that lurks there”. And yet, as soon as this beast “slouch[es] into life”, it is no longer a storybook beast but a Yeatsian one, only a few years before its time – “The Second Coming” wasn’t published until 1920. There is also something Freudian in her vision of this beast, as it rises and craves “what it will not be denied: something…something final”.

It is an effective and appropriate image, both in the way it evokes what it might have felt like for a pregnant woman to be caught up in a violent crowd in 1917, and in the way it alludes to ideas in the air at the time. Freud introduced his theory of the death drive in 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but it was based on the work of Sabina Spielrein, who first proposed it in 1912. This episode also tells us that we are not in the realm of social realism here, but in more impressionistic territory. This narrative will be poetic rather than naturalistic, which we discover later is a deliberate stylistic choice by the narrator, Maryanne’s grandson Michael.

And yet this impressionistic quality quickly becomes a problem for the novel. So committed is Carroll to this dreamlike atmosphere that there is little room in the narrative for complexity, or development, or shifts in tone. Or even historical detail. This nightmarish, although in truth fairly banal, vision of Maryanne’s is returned to without development or complication so many times, and at such length, that you start to yearn for some cold hard facts.

What were the arguments on either side of this conscription debate? How were loyalties tested? How divisive really was it? Instead of any of this we are given this lumbering beast, again and again, in precisely the same language, rising, slouching, shrinking away, always craving “something … final”. The repetition does not add to the profundity of the image. In fact, each time it reappears it sucks air from the narrative and power from an image that even the first time we encountered it was not particularly terrifying, or novel. How faith, patriotism and gender roles intersected and shifted at this particular moment in Melbourne’s history is a fascinating subject. In Carroll’s treatment, these things are never deeply explored.

Carroll is a highly accomplished writer, however, and there are scenes and moments in The Year of the Beast that are deftly handled. Most of them are found when Carroll gets the story going and has people interact with one another. Father Geoghan’s pressuring of Maryanne to give up her child, at first slyly and then after losing control for a moment, explosively, is a great early scene. But these moments are fleeting. So many promising developments are either underdeveloped or dropped too quickly: Maryanne’s relationship with the father of her baby, Viktor, a German draper in the small town where she is sent as a teacher before the scandal of her affair drives her out; her burgeoning friendship with Vera, a young charismatic leader of the Women’s Peace Army; her brief implication in a scandal that rocks the city, when a football star is accused of treason.

Even her sister Katherine, who appears in an earlier Glenroy novel, Spirit of Progress, an adventurous, independent woman who spends most of her time travelling the country, feels underused. Their relationship is sweet, and subtly drawn like everything Carroll writes, but it doesn’t do enough to enliven the story.

Carroll is known for his portraits of reflective, philosophical characters and The Year of the Beast is another such narrative. A deliberate lack of detail, however, and a reliance on a set of far too frequently repeated images, leaves us with a beautifully written, carefully crafted novel about a protagonist who always feels a little too distant, or not quite complicated enough. That this is Michael’s version of Maryanne perhaps explains the dreaminess of the portrait, but it leaves the reader unsatisfied.

Luke Horton

4th Estate, 320pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Steven Carroll, The Year of the Beast". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Luke Horton