Cyclone Country by Chrystopher J Spicer

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Most of us will never have to live through the full force of a cyclone. The jetspeed winds, the locomotive noise, the raging waters and the ravaged landscapes are familiar media icons, but how can we understand the experience without being at ground zero?

Kalbarri in WA recently experienced a cyclone that was covered internationally.  The images were instantly recognizable – pounding surf, impossibly bending trees and flying houses. The vision shown across the networks was mostly the same clips of one badly damaged apartment complex. The few interviews were also brief and predictable.  After a few days, the media forgot the town.  Yet three months later, extensive damage remained. Abandoned apartments, closed car parks, board walks gone and playgrounds in tatters. The physical impacts of the cyclone had to be seen to be believed but the psychological effects on people and communities were largely undisclosed to outsiders.

Clearly, media and flying visits barely scratch the surface of the human impacts of a cyclone. Dr Chrystopher Spicer, initially through a doctoral thesis, turned to literature to test for deeper insights.

It is almost axiomatic that living through a cyclone is a life-changing event for many people. But the profundity of those changes deserves meticulous research by an intelligent observer and an ability to craft them into compelling stories. Who better than accomplished authors?

Cyclone Country is a review of literature that focuses on north Queensland cyclones, but is supplemented with an extensive array of writing from across the globe. The seven chapters cover a diversity of themes from the language of place, naming of cyclones, apocalypse, revelation, epiphany and the cyclone within. Catastrophe, of course, is ever present; but it is the effects on people rather than property or nature that fascinate Chrystopher Spicer and his selection.

Several works are analysed at length. Patrick White’s Eye of the Storm is strongly linked to an epiphany of the central character.   Vance Palmer’s Cyclone, Thea Astley’s A Boat Load of Home Folk and Susan Hawthorne’s poetry cycle Earth’s Breath each illustrate different aspects of Spicer’s themes.

The first two chapters of Cyclone Country are introductory, setting the scene for the analysis that follows: “cyclones are rather like unwanted guests that invade our homes and our lives, against whom we have to defend ourselves. In doing so, we can become aware of relationships between ourselves, our community and our place of which we might not have been previously conscious” [p8].  These relationships and the revelations that unfold are at the heart Spicer’s thesis.

Place is said to be inseparable from a cyclonic experience: “Narratives of the Queensland cyclone have become part of the narrative of place, a narrative that is an indigenous force in that it gives voice to those who live with cyclones……In providing the forum for those voices, cyclone literature (whether drawn from the imagination or based on fact) becomes part of place”. [p40]

The early chapters illustrate the breadth of reading that provides the platform for the book to explore its themes far beyond the nominal topic. The Name of the Rose, Moby Dick, Meteorologica and the Bible are just of few of the honoured tomes. Not to mention some of the more predictable classics, notably Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Defoe’s The Storm and Conrad’s Typhoon.

The use of the literature to frame the human impacts of cyclones offers insights which no scientific examination could. The different perspectives of many authors are multi-dimensional, being unconstrained by science and free to imagine the inner throes of their characters.

Some folk in Thea Astley’s A Boat Load of Home Folk, “experience revelation, but others experience a destructive apocalypse” [p88]. They “struggle to find their way within a cyclonic universe that strips away their personal layers as well as the roofs overhead to reveal what is hidden” [p89].

Neither Astley nor Patrick White were orthodox Christians, but they used a cyclone as a vehicle to explore their “own kind of faith and wrote about characters who also searched for meaning” [p101]. White was particularly attracted to the mandala as a symbol of “the cyclic pattern that overlays much of his work” [p101].  Spicer elaborates on the symbolism and its relationship to the physical manifestation of a cyclone and its eye – with a stunning photograph to reinforce his point [p102].

In The Eye of the Storm, the eye conjures an epiphany for the central character: “reveal[ing] to her a superior spiritual presence that represents itself to her as an omniscient Eye before which she stands with her flaws nakedly visible, and she realises that only in accepting this as her true conditions will she ever find the peace she seeks” [p115].

The circularity of a cyclone is like a serpent swallowing its tail and implies recurrence as well as an “infinite cycle of beginning and end, of life and death.” [p121] Rebirth of a community affected by a cyclone is an obvious instance. This cycle, combined with the snake reference – draws us to indigenous concepts of a Dreamtime and indeed, of time itself.

In Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, the country “is a place of both end and beginning” [p135].   The cyclic patterns in the novel are “inherent to the Aboriginal concept of time, which is cyclical rather than linear, spatial rather than temporal” [ p136].

“As nature catastrophes such as cyclone that have impacted on regional culture become part of that culture, telling stories of them enables us to contextualize the catastrophe and to give it meaning”  [p158]. “Such events and stories of them can challenge previous human experience, thereby providing opportunity to move forward and rebuild, opportunity for emergence of the new” [p170].

Despite being a book full of other authors’ works, Spicer’s contribution is far more than mere cut and paste. His voice is insightful and astute: “A cyclone is a chaotic dismantling of order,” [p117] and his turn of phrase is a pleasure to read. This book took me on a journey that I did not expect – from the physical to the spiritual and return (of course). I may never experience a cyclone, but Cyclone Country is a winding path to its soul.

“Chrystopher Spicer has been writing about Australian and American cultural history for many years……..When [he] started researching cyclone experiences in fiction, initially for his PhD thesis and later for his book Cyclone Country, he was surprised that no one had looked into Australian cyclone fiction and poetry before”.

Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature

(2020)

by Chrystopher J Spicer

McFarland and Company

ISBN: 9781476681566 (Hardcopy)

$49.99: 210pp

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