Reviewed by E.B. Heath
An old Chinese adage counsels that ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ … well, whoever in the Middle Kingdom came up with that had not the opportunity to read Driving into the Sun. What is going on in this novel would require an image the length of the Bayeux Tapestry, and still it could not reach the depth achieved by the poet’s eye of Marcella Polain as she dips into the inner world of her characters.
Marcella Polain’s body of work is impressive. She writes poetry, fiction and essays some of which have been published internationally. Her first novel, The Edge of the World (2007, Fremantle Press) was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She has published three collections of poetry: Dumbstruck won the Anne Elder Poetry Prize, Each Clear Night was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Prize for Poetry and Therapy Like Fish: New and Selected Poems was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Prize.
Driving into the Sun is not a novel that moves to the beat of a busy plot, not a page-turner to rush through. Rather it is a perceptive piece of writing that seamlessly moves from the narrative, to interior monologue, to dialogue, all the while unveiling the social nuances of the novel’s setting that of Western Australia in 1968.
Much of what the reader learns about the key characters comes from their inner dialogue, even when dying or perhaps dead. Orla, the central character, is an eleven-year-old girl who is grieving after the sudden death of her father. Her mother, Henry (short for Henrietta), is often harsh and volatile taking her frustrations out on Orla and her little sister, Deebee. Her father had always been their protector during these bouts of temper, and now she must negotiate her way through this new family dynamic. However, through Orla’s fragmented thought processes the reader also becomes aware of a broader societal menace.
As Polain reveals the social undercurrents that must be faced by Orla and her widowed mother, the reader becomes immersed in the mind of Orla. Polain seems to conjure up reader’s childhood memories to match with Orla’s emotional state and lived experience. This gives a solid foundation to the truth at the centre of the novel. The reader empathizes, rather than judges Orla’s feelings towards her mother and baby sister, understands her anxiety about how to be in the larger world, and feels that her fears are valid.
Henry is written well. Not a naturally maternal person, her frustration and temper sometimes getting the better of her, she now has the added pressure of being a single mother in an era that barely acknowledged her agency as an independent person. Nevertheless, she is determined to be strong for her girls, to forge ahead with the grand plan they had as a married couple that of owning their own land and home. She is determined to do whatever it takes.
This insightful novel brushes to one side the soft edges of suburban life to reveal its inflexible boundaries that contain the lives of women.
Driving into the Sun was ten years in making and the result is an imaginative and original novel.
By Marcella Polain
Paperback – $29.99