Books

Philip Salom
The Fifth Season

When I first started reading Philip Salom’s latest novel, The Fifth Season, I thought I was in for a real treat. The set-up is engagingly noirish. Jack, a writer, moves into a holiday rental at the end of summer, with plans to write a book about “found people” – people who have been found dead and whose identities are stubbornly enigmatic. He soon finds himself simultaneously pursuing the mystery of “missing people”, inspired by the rental property owner, whose sister has disappeared, and by news that the writer who occupied the house before him has also vanished. Thus, Jack, while not literally a detective, is drawn to detective work.

The noirish promise is also apparent in the Chandleresque wit of the protagonist’s voice. For example, when Jack sees a black dog growling at him from a gate, he quips, “You’re a Labrador. It’s out of character.” His writing desk is “lit up like a boxing ring”. A sunset is described with similar concision and power: “The extinction out there over the horizon.”

Salom is perhaps most well known as a poet, and this shows in the scene-stealing language of the book’s opening pages. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, the language loses a lot of its poetry. The plot also loses its way, sidetracked by dialogue-heavy and sketchy scenes about Jack’s encounters with prolix locals. These characters allow Salom to show off his skill in representing the Australian vernacular, but what the characters have to say rarely advances the plot or serves to hold the reader’s interest. Jack himself also engages in rambling and repetitive musings about various subjects close to his heart, ranging from his strongly held beliefs about cooking to the missing-people cases he’s supposedly chasing.

The Fifth Season plays with the detective genre, but it also has more serious literary ambitions, as evident in the autofictional and metafictional elements of the work. There is a novel within the novel, which has been written by the missing author, and there are various reflections that the “fugue” state of the artist involves its own kind of absenteeism. Given that Jack is also unwell, perhaps terminally, the philosophical or existential implication of being a “missing person” is also explored. Each of us is on our way to going missing, after all. However, as The Fifth Season maundered its way towards its anticlimactic conclusion, I couldn’t help feeling that it was disappearing into tedium.

Maria Takolander

Transit Lounge, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "Philip Salom, The Fifth Season".

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Reviewer: Maria Takolander