Driving his young daughters home from school, Limberlost’s protagonist, Ned, stumbles through an accidental telling of an anecdote from childhood. The details, for which his children press him, suddenly feel distant, strange. Ned is struck for a moment by some fundamental grief, and wonders “if the troubled boy of that summer would recognise the man he’d become”.
It’s a brief and unemphatic moment but it distils some of the energy that animates Limberlost. The story centres on that “troubled boy”, the 15-year-old Ned, following his experiences across one summer in the middle of the 1940s. It is, in many ways, a narrative of coming of age: Ned’s attempts to navigate his family’s silent, aching woundedness are part of his broader efforts to make a place for himself, and for joy, in the world. But Arnott’s deeper interest is in memory, the strange force it works upon the self – and so moments like this frequently erupt, transforming a present experience into something remembered at a future point in time.
These memories are all of intense encounters, often focused on the natural or animal world. Ned lives in an orchard – the titular Limberlost – in northern Tasmania, and his proximity to the landscape and its creatures is sharpened by his loneliness and lack of company. He remembers them unexpectedly, his adolescence always returning to him unbidden. Arnott is questioning exactly what it is about these “formative years” that makes them so fundamental to a person, and to this genre. Yet this too is complicated by its projection forwards – as the memories intrude into events close to the present day, they begin to invert the question into a simultaneous consideration of how that lost, past world that Ned still carries cannot be understood by the following generations, and renders him incomprehensible.
Less deftly handled is a revelation from Ned’s future that requires Arnott to withhold the name of the main female character for three-quarters of the book – during which time Ned refers to her only relationally, as “his wife” or “their mother”. It is a distinctly uncomfortable manoeuvre, especially because the device that this abstraction serves isn’t strictly necessary. Despite this, the ambition of Limberlost and the complex questioning that underpins it are fascinating and lend the book a hauntedness that is deeply affecting. Ned’s sensitivity, his striving and his jumbled, tightly held emotions are always handled with great subtlety, and Arnott’s deep compassion for his characters and willingness to leave space for all that is unanswerable make Limberlost a striking book, with lingering resonance and great heart.
Text Publishing, 240pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 15, 2022 as "Limberlost, Robbie Arnott".
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