The Grass Hotel
Craig Sherborne’s new novel, The Grass Hotel, might be seen as the third instalment in a trilogy that started with his outstanding memoirs Hoi Polloi (2005) and Muck (2007).
For this reader, those semi-autobiographical volumes are definitive works of antipodean childhood memoir. The Grass Hotel – a mother-and-son story without a glimmer or trace of love – is more anguished and less humorous.
This is Sherborne’s fourth novel, following The Amateur Science of Love (2011), Tree Palace (2014), which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, and the satirical Off the Record (2018), which riffs on his career as a journalist.
To say The Grass Hotel is a sad book is not a criticism. Life moves on, as we are told. Sherborne, 59 – a reporter by trade and poet by heart – writes simple sentences full of emotional power. The residents of a care home wear “clothes people cry in”; “honesty suits the honesty-teller, not the one being honested”; and a cremated man is “ash but no heat”.
“I wanted a daughter not a son,” says the mother of the nameless main character, a 38-year-old man who lives alone somewhere in rural Australia. “We tried for daughters but no other child came. You broke the parts that do it in having you. I was left with a mannequin son. You were my tippling causer. My lapses were you born.”
The protagonist’s only job is to use his paddocks to care for other people’s horses. This is his “grass hotel”. His mother’s voice commands the novel – not her living monologue but his memories of what she said to him. The boy who lived above Mum and Dad’s pub in small-town New Zealand (Hoi Polloi), and then moved with them to the racetracks of Sydney (Muck), is now a solitary man who must parent his ailing parents, who were once “prosperous publicans”.
His father – Winks in Hoi Polloi – is nicknamed Twinkle “because of his salesman’s glint”. His mother, not named but not unlike Heels in Hoi Polloi, knows her “wiring” is failing and that she has “overlapping minds”. “Off you went,” his mother says, “the father of horses, to become the father of us.”
As a young man, the manager of the “grass hotel” was so good at trivia nights that he was “blacklisted by twenty-six hotels”. His mother dismisses his prodigious memory as a “useless power” but concedes that if the world died tomorrow, “you could write its obituary”. That, however, is not the obituary he must write in this soul-searching novel, in which long-suppressed memories are hinted at and then slowly released.
Text Publishing, 208pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "The Grass Hotel, Craig Sherborne".
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