HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteratureA young boy goes missing in the nineteenth-century outback

A young boy goes missing in the nineteenth-century outback

It is September 1883, in the (then) wheat-farming country of South Australia, and a dust storm is blowing near the small town of Fairly when six-year-old Denny Wallace decides to go for a wander. It’s a bad idea, especially for a “delicate” child, but Denny is not one to play by ordinary rules: he regularly sees visions of gods in this forbidding landscape, and he lives “waiting for something to happen”, without any clear idea of what that might be. Denny’s family – his deaf mother, Mary, his father, Mathew (a farmer), and his five sisters – expect him to return after the turbulence has subsided. But when he fails to reappear, a search is launched and The Sun Walks Down gets into its stride.

“White colonial settlers pitched against the outback” is a familiar trope of Australian fiction, from Henry Lawson and Patrick White to Tim Winton, and in most cases the struggle to survive is treated as a fictional end in itself. Fiona McFarlane’s ambitious novel plays a variation on the theme by paying as much attention to the impact of Denny’s disappearance as it does to the plight of the boy himself. As far as his immediate family is concerned, anxiety serves to emphasize existing characteristics: Mary’s isolation from the country that surrounds her; Mathew’s dogged persistence in the face of overwhelming difficulties; his eldest sister Cissy’s fixation on “knowing”. Much the same goes for the wider circle of immigrant farmers who live nearby. There is the wheelchair-bound Mrs Baumann, who, despite her own deracination, is reckoned to be “hard to pity”; Mrs Baumann’s daughter Minna, who marries the local constable, Robert Manning, on the day of the disappearance, and who flourishes (or flounders) in a state of permanent erotic intoxication; Joanna Axam, another wounded bird (one of her arms has been incapacitated in a riding accident), who feels deprived of a significant role in the life thrust on her; her two sons, George and Ralph; and the exotic Swedish painter Karl Rapp and his English wife, Elizabeth, who have come south in search of the light that will irradiate and distinguish Karl’s work.

McFarlane’s most significant variation on the theme is to give a large part of proceedings to the Indigenous characters who are drawn into the search. These include Billy Rough, the “hired hand” of Denny’s father; Tal, “the best tracker in the district”; and Jimmy Possum, who also has an injured arm, which he disguises with a cloak made of animal hides that is coveted by Joanna. As these and other helpers converge to look for Denny (among them Sergeant Foster, a white policeman from Port Augusta who is also an amateur author), a pattern of questions emerges about belonging and forms of knowledge, which the landscape continually intensifies. Broadly speaking, the white colonists look on the land as inhospitable at best and, at worst, as “alien as the moon” – and, while we might expect the trackers to enjoy much closer ties with it, matters aren’t so simple. Billy in particular has his own way of feeling excluded, and Jimmy is painfully injured during the search. The conclusion is distressing and inescapable: we see how the displacements voluntarily undertaken by the colonists have created disastrous other varieties of dissociation for the people they now live among.

McFarlane amplifies her theme in ways that are often touching and ingenious. Denny, for instance, is not the only character to see things that aren’t there. Several others are prey to absent presences: Mrs Baumann is haunted by a son who died young and Joanna is preoccupied by thoughts of her dead husband. (Henry Axam brought his young family to Australia in the first place and drowned in one of its rivers.). Billy Rough’s sister Nancy, whom we only meet glancingly, also appears to have lost more than one of her children. In a different vein, Cissy Wallace – much given to quoting Tennyson as she searches for her brother, and despite her waspishness – is half in love with the idea of an alternative reality, so that she can escape the world in which she finds herself. And the local priest, Mr Daniels, a “stray Anglican” with a mostly Methodist flock, is repeatedly and calamitously disappointed in his pursuit of the role he has imagined for himself. Virtually every character in the novel, in other words, regardless of their place of origin, is troubled by the difficulties of “belonging”.

In this respectThe Sun Walks Down is a likeable addition to the tradition of which it forms a part: its style is at once spare and attentive to detail, and Fiona McFarlane has a sharp eye for historical injustices. But the ambitious scale inevitably creates problems for the author. The gravitational pull of the novel is generally away from the fact of Denny’s disappearance and towards those who are looking for him, and this produces a sense of structural imbalance, since the further reaches of the narrative are generally more involving than the story that lies at its centre: we never really believe that Denny won’t eventually be found and brought safely home. This sense is exacerbated by the regular introduction of individual voices (of the tracker Tal, the local sex worker and a maid, among others) as a chorus to the main (third-person) action. While fulfilling the cultural ambition of the book, these add to its mood of restlessness. In one sense this is fine – the story is primarily concerned with obstacles to feeling comfortably at home. In another it causes concerns of the kind that Henry James warned about when discussing multiple points of view: no matter how much we might sympathize with the reasons for its inclusiveness, the novel’s frequent reframings test the resilience of our emotional engagement.

Andrew Motion’s most recent collection of poems is Randomly Moving Particles, 2020

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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