W. G. Sebald was justly celebrated for the melancholy antiquarianism of his prose. The Anglo-German writer placed his narrators – solitary eccentrics or survivors of some traumatic past – amid historic spaces in England or Europe. There they moved through decayed mansions or unvisited museums, places emptied of life yet replete with stuff. Uncanny access to the past was granted by virtue of old postcards or Edwardian bric-a-brac.
Now imagine Sebald’s narrator as a young female artist, Australian-born but based in Britain, returning to a shabby suburban house on Sydney’s north shore in the present day. She is nervy, smart, self-flagellating: a recovered anorexic who has more recently suffered from creative block in her art practice. Having defiantly and guiltily fled her middle-class family for London years before, she is returning home only now that her father, a habitual hoarder and serial monomaniac, has died.
There is no faded grandeur for the unnamed narrator in leafy Chatswood and the home where she grew up, surrounded by mouldering piles of magazines and bags of power cords. Nor is some privileged access to deep time afforded by its detritus. It is a “nest of shit” that her parents built around themselves over a lifetime: an accumulation, we learn, the narrator must either bring to order – at first she thinks the house’s contents, sorted and shaped, might serve as an installation of the kind inspired by Chinese artist Song Dong – or discard for the sake of her sanity.
It is the measured banality of this account that renders Jen Craig’s third novel such a perverse tour de force. Wall displays the same technical command of unbroken prose – no paragraph breaks here, just a monologue of nearly 200 pages split into two parts – that made Sebald so remarkable. The Blue Mountains-based author likewise combines exactitude and vagueness, immediacy and distance, to approximate how scatty, wormhole-like human thought might be represented on the page.
But the texture of Australian reality is distinct and so is this novel. The relation between past and present in white antipodean space haunts the reader differently. Little appears to unfold in these pages and yet Wall summons a whole universe of feeling. The narrator’s existence as a daughter, sister, partner and friend is brought into question. Her vocation is needled and critiqued.
Art needs to have “its own way of being, its own way of working”, says the narrator. Jen Craig’s prose is richly complex in its interrogation of the everyday. She brings high ambition and attentiveness in bearing witness to unremarkable things. In Wall, the mouldy carpets of that Chatswood bungalow turn out to hold messages as plangent in their own way as any of Sebald’s grand country piles.
Puncher & Wattmann, 184pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Wall".
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