Children take center stage in a lot of maloufs stories, but the memory of childhood is a deeper, more resonant thread throughout this collection. Pre – adolescence, particularly the ages of nine or ten, carries enormous weight in the writer’s imagination. The light from his Brisbane childhood often illuminates his narrative, and the remembered landscape often illuminates his narrative, and the remembered landscape fills in the background, but it is the child’s worldview that is the dominant concern. Malouf has talked about ” the kind of fluidity of your perceptions at that time which are mostly un-judgmental”, although he acknowledges the incredible strength with which convictions are held. Most of the important questions about relationships and their foundations have begun to surface, yet the child is banished from the adult world at the same time, instilling in them a sense of mystery about the milieu of grown-ups and an awareness of the boundary that exists between childhood and adolescence. Maloufs younger characters exhibit many of these qualities, while the adults try to recapture the untrammeled joy of discovery they remember from their youth.
“Closer” and “Blacksoil Country” are both told from the child’s point of view. Although Jordan, the child’ in the latter story, is discovered to be a 150 -year-old ghost, he shares Amy’s fierce loyalty to her family, despite any objections they may have their elders’ behavior. Both children are driven to heal familial wounds: Amy seeks to reconcile her strict fundamentalist family with her openly gay uncle, while Jordan seems more concerned with his fathers final acknowledgement of his paternal connection than he is with the reality of his own murder (p. 130). Neither children are able to condemn their elders’ narrow opinions, but both regret the destructive power such attitudes can have. Jordan’s innocence allows him to see the apparently harsh landscape around him with fresh eye’s; he and his brother feel that their youth alone is the reason for the magical protection bestowed on them by their Aboriginal neighbors (p.124)
Jack, the main character in “At Schindlers”, shares Jordan’s and Amy’s confidence, but is uncomfortable with the complexity of adult relationships. Watching his mother getting ready for a dance, he feels excluded from her womanly preparations: “Other rules applied here than the ones he knew and wanted her to keep”(p.4). His family is a “puzzle” in the shape of a triangle, the third point of which resides “in a place he could conceive of but never reach”(p.9). He has a fixed idea of his mother in this picture, and is disturbed when her friendship’ with Milt begins to unseat it. Jack comes to grips with the family “puzzle” by the end of the story, and his newfound wisdom propels him into a more adult universe. In ” Great Day”, young Ned rages when grown ups refuse to give him answers. “How am I ever going to know how to act or anything if I cant find out the simplest thing?” he whines (p.134) His uncle Clem has returned to a childlike state after a car accident leaves him with acquired brain injury; he is forced to put the jigsaw of his past back together “like a child catching at clues that the grown-ups would give away only by default” (p.145). Similarly, Brad’s son in “Sally’s Story” is “puzzled” when his father refers to family secrets but refuses to divulge them (p.86). In “Dream Stuff”, Colin remembers his widowed mother being “a puzzle”(p.37); she dies before he has a chance to solve the conundrum, an event which casts the middle-aged writer adrift in a dream world of infantile disassociation.
Malouf’s adult characters are often defined by their ability to recognize or connect with their childhood selves. In “Jacko’s Reach” an elderly man recalls seeing a dead man hanging from a tree, and “it was the awe of that dumbstruck eight-year-old as he continued to look out, in a ghostly way, through the eyes of the gaunt old-timer, that was the real story”(p.95). Jackos Reach itself is a constant reminder of the local people’s childhoods, and the gangs they formed while playing there hint at the “darker loyalties” underpinning their current associations (p.98-9). Audile, the patriarch of the Tyler clan in “Great Day”, has a sense of a “secretly enduring youth”, one manifestation of this being his desire to still pursue an alternative career in geology even though he has long retired from public office (p.157). His son Ralph exhibits childish impulses of a less restrained sort that often catch him unawares (p.140); Ralph’s wife sometimes feels uncomfortable in the presence of her withdrawn in-laws, “like a child who had been dumped on them for a wet weekend and could find nothing to do” (p.139). Malouf seems to be suggesting that we never lose touch with the younger versions of ourselves, and that this continuity with our own pasts is more than a nostalgic desire, it is an essential human need.
Matt Sheehan 1999