It’s a special privilege to have been asked to launch Bloodlines here at the Margaret River Bookshop. I first met Nic through a short story that she submitted to the journal Indigo when I was the fiction editor for that edition. That was some years ago. One way or another we’ve been in touch ever since and particularly so when both of us were Margaret River residents.
Anyway, to Bloodlines. It is a remarkable novel—and there’s so much one could say about it, but I’ll keep it brief. I won’t attempt to summarise the story, but to put you more or less in the picture, it’s a novel about a character, Beth, who comes from the Wheatbelt in WA. Her father, Clem, is a farmer and shearer and her mother, Rose, is dead. Beth is traumatised by a decision she has made which has unimagined consequences. So, she needs to ‘get away’ and heads to PNG to help out at a Catholic school run by her father’s cousin, Val.
One of the special strengths of the novel is the way in which ‘place’ is established and functions within the work. The primary settings in the novel—the wheatbelt and PNG—are rendered with exquisite detail and vitality. I think such descriptions are particularly effective when they work to not only establish a sense of place, but when they also provide insights into a character’s relationship with that place, in other words, how the characters registers their surroundings. In what follows, we can feel what it’s like for someone to confront the new, even the world-weary Pirate, a seductive male who arrives and departs in a blaze of glory. He is on the outskirts of a small village and feels the locals are looking at him, seeing him as different.
For one moment the whole place seems too quiet. He’s too large or something, and he fights the urge to turn around and head back to the boat. Keeping his head down, he leaves the silent, listless women and heads towards town.
Two guards armed with iron rods a meter long stand outside the Bank off the South Pacific. They watch Pirate closely and after he’s passed call out gut moning. He waves his hand over his shoulder, but doesn’t turn around. And when he reaches the big green supermarket on the corner, it’s like he’s in a different place entirely. They’re everywhere: three-legged dogs dragging a useless limb behind them. Dogs riddled with mange, dogs with gnawed nipples stretching towards the ground. People sit along the shop front in the shade of the awnings. And chew betel nut and spit on the gravel road and cement pavement where he walks. They call out hello and he hears some utter Mister Jim and Pirate. A few barefoot boys and one small girl race past him, calling to each other, heading for the beach. Beat-up old cars and ute loads of men in ripped shirts and women in colourful loose dresses, children on their laps, drive past tooting horns. And once they spot him, everyone’s eyes seem to rest on him. Pirate can’t help but smile. (154-155).
There’s a very different description of another arrival, Rose in Hope Valley, Western Australia.
When she arrives, she walks the main street twice and can’t believe how small Hope Valley is. There’s MacMillan’s: a general store that doubles as the post office, three churches, an old flourmill now turned into tearooms, and a few brick houses between them all. Two pubs—The Bottom and The Top—bookend the lot. When she’d phoned on Tuesday about the job, she’d been told to wait outside MacMillan’s shop, where Harry Smithson, in a red ute, would meet her at three. It’s already ten past four.
Rose looks down the length of the main street. Not one person. Not one car. Not much hope at all. (26-27)
In both passages we certainly get a sense of the physicality of place, but the descriptions are also freighted with the emotional state of the characters.
(I should point out that dogs are a significant feature of the novel and I can imagine an undergraduate essay somewhere in the future on ‘The similarities and differences in the representation of dogs in Australia and PNG in Nicole Sinclair’s Bloodlines.’)
The novel explores numerous larger order issues such as identity, belonging, power relations between men and women—and between first and third world countries— gender, race, love, fidelity, notions of ‘home’—and what constitutes a meaningful life. These are, self-evidently, the big issues that impact on all of us and that fiction is particularly well suited to exploring. Lest this sounds all frightfully high-minded and abstract, let me say the exceptional achievement of the novel is that these concerns are grounded in the specifics of character, place, and plot. These are the prisms through which complex and profound matters are examined with great sensitivity and perception. Above all, it’s a great story.
I’d like to briefly pick up on two of these ‘big issues’, so these comments aren’t just floating generalities. The notion of what constitutes ‘home’ runs throughout the novel. Once Beth arrives at the school and is settled in, she is constantly confronting the question of how long she is there for, where does she really belong? What does it mean if you believe you are running away from something—how does that position the place you have run to? PNG can’t function only as a place for the resolution of expats’ needs. Obviously for the indigenous population it is a country with its own identity, authority, history, language(s) and so on. This awareness lies on the periphery of Beth’s consciousness which is also, largely, the reader’s consciousness. A great strength of the writing is that we experience, along with the character, that sense of puzzlement, threat, awe, mystery, delight in these new surroundings. The use of pidgin is particularly effective in this regard. The reader has to work a bit to enter into an understanding of what is being said. And after a while this becomes less of a challenge as we become more familiar with the language and therefore the culture and the people. In other words, to some extent we mimic the experience of Beth confronting and unraveling the new.
Beth, and by extension the novel, does not shy away from the less attractive elements of PNG society. Its poverty, violence, sexism. This is always delicate ground for a ‘westerner’; you are always going to be open to charges of conscious or unconscious bias, superiority, exploitation, appropriation and so on. I think what obviates all this is the sense that Beth herself is warm, modest, supportive, at times almost apologetic about her own existence. She is not trying to tell anyone how to live and she struggles to discover a self that is secure enough to make a life that is meaningful and fulfilled. She is as honest, and critical of herself as she is of the society around her.
The question of home is raised most forcefully through the expats who are permanent or semi-permanent inhabitants of PNG. There is, as mentioned, Aunt Val, the gin-sipping nun-like head of the school whose life has achieved meaning working with the children. She is no longer running to, or from, anything. Other expats are far less attractive, especially the leering, exploitative, violent Roo. Such figures present for the reader a very troubled sense of home. By contrast, the delightful Clem back in the Wheatbelt town of Hope Valley has no doubts about where home lies.
Another ‘big issue’ that the novel addresses is love, in all its complications and various manifestations. A dominant strand throughout is the love between father and daughter, which is examined with great sensitivity. Here there is need and longing on the part of both Clem and Beth, but inextricably linked with generosity, a deep commitment to behaviours that are in the best interest of the beloved. This question of the best interests of another is a central paradox of the novel, how to maintain your own integrity when it might result in suffering, either your own or another’s? I think this issue is most clearly embodied not in Beth’s relationship with her father, Clem—where I think you could argue that the answer is reasonably self-evident—but with Sam. I won’t say any more about that. You’ll have to read the novel to discover what goes on with that intriguing character.
This is a novel that is tightly written, deeply personal, empathic, and at the same time engages with the wider political and social issues that I’ve briefly referred to. I’m convinced we are going to hear a lot more from our local hero, Nicole Sinclair. In declaring Bloodlines launched here in Margaret River, I’d urge you to buy as many copies as you can carry and get them signed before you leave.
Bloodlines is now available for purchase from Margaret River Press, and in all good bookstores.