Generational trauma is not the most seductive of hooks to make a reader pick up a book, nevertheless I was so excited to read Josephine Rowe’s debut novel. Firstly because the subject matter, while bleak, is hugely relevant to the Australian narrative. And secondly because I have long been meaning to read more of Rowe’s work, having come across a few of her gorgeous short stories. So I began the Easter weekend with this book in hand, hoping it would live up to expectations.
A Loving, Faithful Animal begins on New Year’s Eve in 1990 when Ru’s father Jack disappears. What follows is a portrait of a family struggling to deal with the aftermath of Jack’s leaving, the lingering difficulties he and his departure have created. Across the novel we hear from those left behind, in their own voices, but it all begins with Jack. A Vietnam Veteran, he is erratic at home as both a husband and a father, never quite resettled after the horror of war. Rowe beautifully captures the opposing forces of guilt and trauma in Jack’s life which come to define the whole family:
One year. One stinking year out of forty-four, and a lifetime of four hours’ sleep on a good night, waking to the same dark dread every morning, same lead in the belly. Life split in half, a neat whack with a hatchet, into the Before and After. Good things still happened in the After but it was like they were echoes. Shadows of things from the first two decades. Things that got ripped to rags trying to sneak across that one-year wire.
Up until A Loving, Faithful Animal Rowe has been known predominately for her short fiction and poetry. Like Lisa Gordon in The Life of Houses, Rowe’s poetic touch sings off the page in her lyrical, descriptive prose, with every word feeling like it was carefully mulled over to produce some of the most beautiful writing I’ve come across in a long time. And like Gordon’s novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal also captures some really beautiful glimpses of Australian life, like this perfect snapshot of childhood innocence:
Your bike muscles aren’t up to much yet, so you stand for the dusty rises in the road and march on the pedals, the sun slung across your bare shoulders, warm as Reef oil. And although your lungs are on fire and the corners of your eyes are filling with grit, that tight place in your chest is cracking open, the bright afternoon spilling in. The new year will be better. It will be. It will. There’s a song on a tape someone made for your sister, and it’s playing over and over, behind your eyes. Even when it gets so steep that you have to jump off and push, the song is still there; about a wide open road, and how you can go to any place you want to.
This following passage reminded me of Questions of Travel in it’s ability to hit on the allure of home Australians’ feel when they’re away — the mixed feelings of a small country feeling claustrophobic when you’re no longer anonymous amongst the crowd, hitting up against the craving for that particular mix of space and fresh air and warmth that somehow feel unique to Australian skies:
… the feeling of leaning back against sun-warmed brick, lulling and simple and familiar. The sweet, heady mingling of magnolia and lawnmower fuel. And it’s fine for a while, all the catch-up talk. Tell me, love, just what’re you looking forward to? How cheeky her kids are getting, and how soon the water restrictions might lift.
A Loving, Faithful Animal is more of a rumination and examination of character — and to a lesser extent, place — than a plot-driven story, but Rowe’s choice to break up the novel by using different voices and incorporating stylistic changes throughout help to keep the reader engaged. This is a quiet little novel, but a hauntingly beautiful one.
While the narrative of the Vietnam Veteran is seeped into the Australian consciousness from a particularly Anglicised point of view, of course our country is largely defined by migration and our complex relation with it, and refugees and migrants from Vietnam have had a huge impact in the cultural make-up of this country. When people talk about the effect of multiculturalism in Australia, it is only ever moments before someone mentions food — a diverse population also allows for a diverse cuisine. Just as I finished reading A Loving, Faithful Animal I was struck down with a cold. The kind that goes from a scratchy throat the night before, to full-blown can-barely-lift-your-head-from-the-pillow the next morning. Whenever I’m feeling stuffed up or run down I always go searching for a bowl of spicy noodle soup, either a Thai-style Laksa or a Vietnamese-style Phở. Though this version I made at home is far from authentic, it was super quick and easy to throw together as a weeknight meal. I minced two cloves of garlic, a thumb-sized piece of ginger (these are sick-people quantities for one person, usually I’d use half of this) and one star anise and added this and a splash of fish sauce to two cups of fish stock. I brought to the boil while I chopped up a small head of broccoli and julienned a small zucchini. Once the stock had had a few minutes to absorb the aromatics, I dropped in a handful of cooked, frozen prawns and the broccoli. Once this came back to the boil it was pretty much done, so I dropped in the zucchini for the final thirty-seconds. I served it poured over cooked rice noodles, with a handful of bean sprouts and a pile of chilli on top, squeezing over the juice of half a lemon. You could easily use vegetable stock and mushrooms for the fish stock and prawns, or chicken stock and shredded chicken, but as I may have said before here, I eat seafood like others eat pork so I wanted the comfort of a fishy broth this time, but would certainly like to play around with the recipe, adding extra spices so that it ends up closer to this version from Love and Lemons. After reading about the lingering trauma of war, it was nice to be reminded that for the fortunate few on the other side of it can come new neighbours, friends, traditions and of course, food.
‘Nearly every major city in the world has one — a district where Chinese immigrants have settled to live, work and eat.’ I enjoyed listening to this podcast of BBC’s ‘The Food Chain’ about the tradition of Chinatown’s around the world — city landmarks that ‘create a global trail of economic and culinary influence.’