It has been a long time since a book has physically moved me to tears. I am often an emotional reader, like when I read The Golden Age, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or May We Be Forgiven, but rarely can words on a page break through to me in such an affecting way. As I read Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor Point I found myself savouring every moment, extending the pleasure of the reading experience. With twenty pages remaining, I left the cafe where I had been reading, knowing I needed to be alone to finish the novel. In those final twenty pages, I was brought to tears not once, but twice; tears running down my face as I turned to the next page. As I closed the covers for the final time, I wanted to hold the book to my chest, to show the characters that I wasn’t leaving them, that they’d always be with me. Anchor Point is a remarkable novel for a writer at any stage of their career and it is difficult to think that it comes as a debut. Like Emily Bitto’s The Strays, it is crafted, polished and nurtured like that of a skilled author at the top of their game. Anchor Point is a rich, beautiful novel in its own right, but also stands as a monument to Australia, it’s landscape and the people, particularly the women, that come from the land.
Anchor Point begins when, as a ten year old, Laura makes the decision to conceal the note left by her mother explaining why she is leaving her two children and volatile marriage, and keeps quiet throughout the subsequent search amongst the ragged bush at the edge of the family’s property. In her mother’s place, Laura must support her father Bruce’s work on the farm and be the mother figure to her younger sister Vik, her childhood lost as a consequence of her decision. Told across four decades, we follow Laura and her family as they battle with nature and the haunting legacy of their mother.
Robinson manages to craft characters who are equally flawed but human. We identify with their decisions and see their side of the story, while we ache for them and wish we could hold their hand while they reconcile their difficulties. When bushfire threatens to wipe out the farm and leave them with nothing, young Laura stops for a moment to consider it as an opportunity for change, in a place where seemingly everything stays the same, no matter what tragedy comes before it:
In a dark corner of her mind was another thought, one she pushed down even as it surfaced. That having the lot go up might be good. She savoured a thrilling little twinge of relief as she imagined the house razed — the terrible freedom it would bring. It was the same feeling she sometimes got when she climbed up on the roof to clean gutters, overcome with the sense that she might suddenly, unexpectedly, jump.
Anchor Point is a beautiful exploration of how place defines us, owns us, is tied up in our own identity. Laura is haunted by the farm, trapped by it, yet struggles to release herself from it: "It's in me, somehow. This place.” There are universal struggles between city and country, home and away, that are experienced around the world, but within a country as large and widespread as Australia are heightened by distance. The city feels alien, equally evocative and enticing as it is frightening and foreign. Yet it also brings freedom — a place to reclaim identity as an individual, to explore the world free from expectation. The smaller skies, the concrete shadows, the narrow streets all give space in a way that sprawling open fields cannot.
Her stomach seized up every time she thought of going off on her own, and to a strange place, but she stood firm. A part of her acknowledged that the prospect of a place where no one knew her, or her family, was thrilling. For the first time, she would not be known as the girl whose mother went missing.
Anyone who grew up in a small city or a regional town will understand these feelings of freedom that come from moving away, but also the guilt that comes in leaving. Laura moving away from the farm leaves behind chores that won’t get done, animals that need care, and a father that will be largely on his own. Robinson poetically explores the sacrifices and loneliness that come from this restless duality, such as when Laura struggles to leave the city behind to come home to visit:
Bruce listened to her excuses, so understanding. Laura felt some precious part of her chip off.
What made Anchor Point so powerful for me was how deeply and instinctively Australian it felt. There are wonderful little moments scattered throughout Robinson’s narrative that describe the landscape with intrinsic ownership: references to the ‘smell of wet bark’, ‘the sepia sprawl’, the ‘rolling burnished hills’. But the Australianness of Anchor Point also sits firmly within the personalities of characters: their practicality, their down-to-earth nature, their stoicism amongst their overarching instinct to nurture both the people and the land around them. I saw so much of my mother and grandmother in Laura it was haunting and visceral, but Robinson also captures a feeling that is often left unsaid about Australian masculinity:
She tried to smile back, but this new version of her father was unnerving. While she was glad beyond words that the search was finally over — that Bruce had returned himself to them — he was changed, impatient: slightly manic. There was something about his company that felt dangerous; the feverish activity that had rushed in to fill the place of his grief was unsettling to watch.
Robinson also hits perfectly the power of nature and it’s inherent masculinity. It is unpredictable and all-encompassing, holding a sense of ownership over those who try to tame it, punishing those who feel like they have the authority to do so. Nature is constantly teaching Laura and Bruce about the land, yet they struggle to hear the messages. It is a perfect analogy for our current lack of response to climate change, particularly in Australia where we see everyday that something is wrong, yet we try to turn away.
Anchor Point covers big themes without overwhelming the reader: family, love, relationships, grief, native title and climate change. Robinson cleverly uses the timespan of the narrative to show us where we have come from and where we are going. In teasing out the resolution and conflict between the characters, she builds intensity in the world they occupy, like a big storm building on the horizon.
In many ways this has been one of the most difficult reviews for book-plate because it’s difficult to express how Anchor Point swept me up and burrowed into my heart. I wanted to savour every word, to let the poetry and beauty of Robinson's prose both sink in to my memory but also wash over me like gliding through cool water on a hot day. When I finished reading Anchor Point it was all I had not to flip back to page one and re-read it again immediately. It’s a book I want to give to women in my life who I love, to people who want to understand Australia and the women who come from the land, and a book that I want to read again and again. Anchor Point is a triumph. It should be a front-runner for The Stella Prize and will likely nominated for the Miles Franklin and other literary prizes, but I don’t just want it to be recognised as a strong and important book about Australia and Australian women or about climate change — it is all of those things, but it’s also a stunning piece of fiction. It feels like a big, broad epic novel, yet it is tightly written to fit within 260 pages without ever missing a beat. On the strength of Robinson’s prose, it deserves to be recognised amongst the best of 2015.
As summer moves into autumn in Melbourne, the days start to cool and the city feels more comfortable, more itself. We’re left without the exhausting humidity, the hot, sleepless nights and left with blue skies and cool breezes. The changing seasons becomes a matter of balance when it comes to food too, and this salad feels perfect. Warmth from the roasted pumpkin amongst a cooling bed of lettuce, whilst making the most of the diminishing summer stone fruits. I made Green Kitchen Stories' beautiful Roasted Pumpkin and Peach Salad using white nectarines instead of peaches because I adore them, and you could use different fruit and different nuts very easily here. It’s a wonderful balance of textures - the crispy lettuce, crunchy almonds and soft, roasted pumpkin - and a well balanced palate from the sweet but sharp dressing, the aniseed of the fennel and the tart fruit. It would be a great salad to make for a vegan friend at lunch, or to have alongside a piece of grilled fish at dinner, whilst sitting in the path of the first autumnal breezes, feeling the sun on your face, feeling connected to the changing seasons on your skin and on your plate.
Perhaps Australians are inclined towards an inherent misogyny from the power of the land that Robinson portrays in Anchor Point. Maybe it comes from a history of invasion, genocide and of being occupied by convicts. But it’s still here, we can’t seem to shake it off. This almighty inferiority complex, this need to maintain control by whatever means necessary. We are frightened by the land yet unable to relinquish ourselves to it, learn the lessons it is trying to teach us, and find a quieter, more peaceful way to be here, both on the land and with the people around us. Australia feels unsettled, restless and more unsure of itself than ever. It feels volatile and frightening, despite in an everyday sense feeling comfortable and settled. At this strange point in our history, it seems that writers are expressing what we are struggling to say. Alice Robinson is able to write about climate change in a way that is powerful, persuasive and emotional. And Richard Flanagan is able to write about human rights in a way that connects us with history and shows us that we deserve better. His stunning response to the bullying behaviour by the Abbott government towards Gillian Triggs responds to the use of this inherent misogyny, this default state of fear and intimidation that tries to frighten the small and the weak. Flanagan’s belief that in the (hopefully near) future this government will be held responsible for their actions gives us hope for a better time ahead, in the same way that Robinson aims to show us what will happen if we don't start to listen to mother nature. Thank goodness for these voices of reason, in an otherwise frightening time.