Reviewed by Rod McLary
The title of this book is taken from a poem – The Drunken Boat – written at age 16 by the enfant terrible of French poetry Arthur Rimbaud. The Drunken Boat believes it is freely floating but instead it is being guided by the ‘poem of the sea’ and sees splendid visions including ‘incredible Floridas/Where mingle with flowers the eyes of panthers’.
Roland Griffin and his family live in rural Australia where Griff – as he is generally known – is a painter of the Australian landscape. Griff and his wife Ena have two children Sonia and the troubled Hal. Hal seeks only his father’s approval and acceptance but Griff is more focussed on his painting and spends much of his time in his shed to the neglect of his family. For Griff, everything and everyone is a potential painting – even Hal who metaphorically is the boy in the drunken boat. Hal travels through life in his own way and – as the poem says – sees splendid visions not seen by those around him.
Hal is a bright boy but struggles to remain focussed on any one activity. He is desperate for the attention of his father but Griff is remote and detached. It becomes clear as the novel progresses that Hal is impulsive and undisciplined and struggles to see his place in the world. However, scant attention is paid to that and his impulsivity is simply tolerated to varying degrees by those around him. Fortunately, some of those around him are prepared to help in whatever way they can. But ultimately, it is not enough and there is a tragic ending.
Prior to the opening of the novel, Griff and his family leave Britain which is in the shadow of the looming Second World War to return to Australia. Griff has a reputation as an Australian painter of some renown – painting landscapes and some portraits. It is conjectured that the character of Griff is based on Russell Drysdale. Griff and his family set up house close to extended family in what appears to be a smallish country town.
Sonia and Hal attend the local school as does the girl next door – Mary – who may have a disability [perhaps Down’s Syndrome]. Rather than demonstrating compassion and understanding towards the girl, Hal and, to a lesser extent Sonia, exhibit childish cruelty to her. The author’s description of the behaviour and words directed to the girl are brilliantly executed. As Hal grows older, hints of adolescent sexuality can be identified in his interactions with Mary which suggest the deeper issues confronting Hal as he moves towards adulthood.
In attempts to manage Hal, Griff takes him on road trips which are partly to seek out subjects for his paintings but also to allow Hal time away from the demands of school and family. These trips are largely successful but of course they are not the answer. Real life and all its demands intrude and Hal continues to struggle. Efforts are made to find employment for Hal but nothing lasts. It seems inevitable that it will end in only one way.
The author has captured beautifully the slow-moving nature of an Australian town in the 1950s with all its colloquialisms and latent sexism. The dialogue between Griff and his wife Ena is particularly poignant as together and separately they struggle with their own relationship and the demands of rearing a child such as Hal. There is a subtext in the dialogue which an astute reader will readily understand but seemly it escapes those speaking it and those to whom it is directed.
The author has a self-disclosed interest in the dynamics of families and communities – this is clearly and ably demonstrated in this book which explores both Hal’s family and the community in which he lives. The writing is of a high standard and the characters are drawn sensitively and with a deep understanding of their complexities. Stephen Orr’s other interest is in the plight of isolated individuals – again ably demonstrated through the characterisation of Hal and his many and varied experiences.
The author clearly has an affinity for Australia and Australians and the characters are drawn with great affection and sensitivity. If the reader was an Australian child of the 1950s, he/she can almost re-live that time through the pages in this book.
Stephen Orr is the author of several published works of fiction and non-fiction. His novel Time’s Long Ruin was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2011. He lives in Adelaide and is a pert-time teacher.
by Stephen Orr
ISBN 978 1 74305 507 6