Imagine that Grace Tame, happening on the late Philip Roth in his study, hard at work on his World War II alternative history The Plot Against America, tied the novelist to his chair and began a radical rewrite: shifting its setting from 1930s and ’40s Newark to suburban Adelaide of the same era, and changing the narrative so that the primary group to suffer under a concocted local fascist state is women. Oh, and she makes the heroines of her story a coven of young witches.
A History of Dreams, like Jane Rawson’s previous novel From the Wreck – a historical tale of shipwreck and survival in 19th-century South Australia, partly told by an extra-dimensional alien who has taken the form of a giant octopus – sounds bizarre when reduced to an elevator pitch. But Rawson’s brilliance lies in the way she takes extraordinary narrative material and plays it with a bat so straight that readers can’t help but accept and engage with the terms of her fictional universe. And really, what could be more natural than four vivid and talented young women, faced with a society that treats them as little more than chattels or breeding stock, turning to witchcraft as a way of sticking it to the patriarchy.
The author is too canny to plunge readers straight into this scenario, however; she boils us like frogs in the pot. The establishing chapters are dutifully accurate in their rendering of pre-war Adelaide, and they introduce this quartet in such a jaunty, jolly hockey sticks manner it flirts with pastiche.
The central pair are the Beasley sisters. Margaret, the elder, is academically gifted yet self-effacing to a fault, while Esther is a childlike idealist, a charmingly unfiltered dreamer who composes music. Compared with these daughters of the middle class, their beautiful friend Audrey Macquarie cuts a more dashing figure: fierce and comparatively emancipated, Audrey hails from a well-to-do Yorkshire family with deep socialist sympathies.
The three girls have, since childhood, run a social club: a blamelessly genteel generator of good works and tennis parties. But around the same time that Esther invites a fourth to join them – Phyllis, a tough, sharp-witted girl from their school, working class to her bootstraps – the temper of the group changes. Especially after Audrey reveals to the rest that she is a witch and explains her determination to teach them all to use said witchery to topple the bourgeoisie.
Rawson delivers this news with such lightness of touch that it barely disturbs the realist register she has been working in. This witchcraft consists of secret wisdom passed over generations between unmarried aunts and their nieces, and works by subconscious nudges. Certain dreams may be spun and then suspended in liquid. Those who drink it will be moved to alter their daytime life. This can be a joyous experience for the unwitting subject; it can also be a nightmare.
At this point, the novel begins a series of departures from the historical time line. The pre-war groups in Australia advocating on behalf of Hitlerism – a small, fascist-adjacent fringe in reality – emerge, in Rawson’s version of events, as the most powerful political force in the land. When prime minister Joseph Lyons dies in office in 1939, he isn’t replaced by the devoutly Anglophile Robert Menzies, but by a man named Hubbard whose sympathies lie firmly with the authoritarian strongmen of the Axis powers.
Hubbard and his party embark on a very different war. Abroad, they side Australia with Japan against the communist Chinese, while at home they mobilise against European refugees, homosexuals and women. What began as a parlour game now becomes an existential struggle. Increasingly women are forced out of the workforce and denied higher education and access to contraception. Their only role is to breed strong, racially pure children for the antipodean fatherland. The coven is forced underground in a manner that seems more redolent of wartime Paris than Adelaide.
One of the shocks that comes with this dystopic turn is a sense that Rawson is not dealing with historical material. She has instead dressed recent domestic events – asylum-seeker policy or the treatment of women – in mid-century uniform. The result is a feeling that certain political impulses are not the expression of a particular moment in time or place but an enduring expression of a particularly masculine will to power.
This is dark material indeed, and the bleakly comic tenor of Rawson’s prose is the only thing that keeps the story this side of despair. It lets her explore the darkest implications of a society in which one half seeks to dominate the other while enjoining them to embrace their subjection as a state that is at once happy and natural.
The dreams the women summon in response, filling bottles like so many Molotov cocktails, are expressions of more subtle violence. They are designed to undermine this dominant ideology, to turn the narrow stupidity and cruelty embedded in the nation’s life back against its makers. It is the terrible power of feminine derision, exposing male fantasies of strength as laughable and small.
But perhaps A History of Dreams, being a novel, represents the most powerful weapon of all. Narratives such as this are conjurings of imaginative intent and persuasion: a spell cast by words, inviting readers to change their views, even their lives. Rawson certainly thinks so. She has made a bomb of righteous fury and sisterly solidarity that detonates with a force comparable to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.
Brio, 312pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "The History of Dreams, Jane Rawson".
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