When it comes to queer history, it’s easy to assume that gaps in the story equate to absence. But it isn’t so. While patriarchal societies have tried their darnedest to erase the presence of the disparate but overlapping LGBTQIA+ communities, we have always sought out one another in the secret pockets that offer safe harbour.
Ironbark author Jay Carmichael attempts to write some of that missing history back into 1950s Melbourne with his bracing second novel, Marlo. This was a time when the shadowy forces of a newly founded ASIO stalked “known male homosexuals”. Home offered no more protection than being caught in a park beat or public toilet. The Crimes Act 1949 asserted that “Any male who in public or in private commits … any act of indecency with another male person … shall be liable to imprisonment”. As well as the vice squad, homophobic men meted out physical violence as the media fanned aggressive hysteria.
Country boy Christopher leaves the claustrophobic Victorian town that grants the book its name for the big smoke. Melbourne’s smoggy streets offer no more acceptance, but he can, at least, find some anonymity. As is often the way with those yet to define their emerging sexuality, he is picked on by the men he works with as a mechanic. Following a stranger into the bushes of the Royal Botanic Gardens after dark, he encounters Morgan, a handsome First Nations man who trips over him and lands clumsily in the dirt. Afterwards their lives entwine. Morgan, forced to carry papers under the insidious Aborigines Protection Act, faces extra layers of oppression, and these complexities give this affecting story much of its power.
Carmichael’s style in Marlo is more straightforward than the lyricism of Ironbark. It’s really a novella and the book’s compactness does sacrifice a little detail. For example, a tantalising glimpse into a clandestine coffee shop scene that offers respite to queer people understays its welcome, particularly as it introduces characters who do not fit as easily into the gender binary as Christopher and Morgan. I’d have liked to know the charismatic Jacqui and spiky Willodee a little more. Even so, Carmichael traces a hopeful story of two men trying to carve out some small corner of domestic peace that allows for joy. Even in its brevity, Marlo offers a glorious peek into historical gaps that were far from uninhabited.
Scribe Publications, 160pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Marlo, Jay Carmichael".
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