Reviewed by E. B. Heath
The Fatal Dance engages with a range of subjects subtly woven into a funny and poignant family drama. Although the descriptions of place and people are vivid and detailed, much is implied, allowing the text to move at a fast pace as each member illustrates different aspects of modern life: financial aspiration and stresses shaped by capitalism, a history and personal experience of Huntington’s disease, suicide, drug use, western scientific method versus Indigenous knowledge, problematic affiliations between universities and pharmaceutical companies, brutality of prison life, and immigration. And golf! Such are the building blocks of Berndt Sellheim’s The Fatal Dance.
Sellheim develops the structure of each character’s experience – how they relate one to another, their inner lives, and their position within society and how experience changes their awareness. This is accomplished with a light touch, discrete pieces of information woven through a witty narrative. And the characters are so engaging!
Redmond (Red) is a top-end real estate agent, a complicated figure trapped by his own ambition. Sellheim uses Red to provide the novel with some really funny, brilliantly described scenes. And some shocking behaviour! Red’s close friend and fellow golfer, Angelo, introduces him to the dubious high-flying businesswoman, the Sorceress Min Fang. Angelo assures Red that Min Fang is his passport to the big time. And, of course, there is a physical attraction between Red and the Sorceress, who is also an obsessive golfer, understanding golf as a metaphor for almost every aspect of her life:
This is why golf is the perfect game, the most pure. It’s about you, face to face with the white eye of the self.
Red’s wife Bea has just been sent to prison! The reason for her incarceration is not immediately apparent but, in the telling, readers receive interesting insights into prison life, both physical and psychological. Bea’s sister Lori, a hippy dippy free spirit, has Huntington’s disease and spends time chasing her happier past. Through Lori, readers encounter the personal horrors of living with a predatory disease, fighting a battle to keep her identity separate from the disease. Mada is Lori’s son, although mainly raised by Bea. Motivated by his mother’s illness, Mada is focused on finding a cure for Huntington’s disease, which is to be the subject of his PhD. Paula is Mada’s academic supervisor. Paula is the lover and colleague of Carlos, a Venezuelan immigrant, who is working with Mada researching Huntington’s disease. Carlos is pleading with Australia Immigration to be allowed to stay in Australia and fighting a losing battle. Mada, Paula and Carlos are dealing on a daily basis with the insidious financial connections between the university and pharmaceutical companies, which is influencing the integrity of their research. Taking a different path from western scientific methodology, and amid much resistance, Carlos is determined to incorporate Venezuelan Indigenous plants into his work:
… there is a grammar to healing, a grammar which the forest wants to reveal. A language of forest, a language of sky. Physics and philosophy have the same root …
And then there is the dog; less said about that the better.
Sellheim uses this fascinating cast of actors to illustrate the imperative of appreciating our freedoms in Australia, to appreciate the joy of each precious moment of our lives – healthy or otherwise. To quote Bea when she is released from prison, back into her chaotic family:
Life. All of it. We’re jetting through and it seems so normal … I’ve had such fantasies of the simplest things: getting up to have strawberries for breakfast, picking up food from the supermarket, going to work even. How small the stuff of daydreams. … Extraordinary. And so fragile. … It’s normal, everyday ho-hum. But it’s mad and unstable and none of it certain. And what else can you do but laugh?
Berndt Sellheim is a poet, novelist and has a doctorate in philosophy. The Fatal Dance is a work of literary fiction; it is both a comical and an instructive reading experience.
By Berndt Sellheim