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Australian Writer Profile – Deborah Robertson – ‘Sweet Old World’ [March 3]

This profile was published in the March 2012 edition of the Readings Bookshop magazine:

Deborah Robertson’s latest novel began life as a story about three sisters grappling with the impacts of infertility. Eighteen months into the first draft, the Melbourne-based author was so bored with her own project that she ditched it.

‘It had the tone of a Sunday newspaper supplement. We all know about childlessness and it’s all been about the woman’s body and the woman’s longing. There has been such a feminisation of infertility and of parenthood in recent decades’.

Robertson hadn’t lost interest in exploring the experience of childlessness through fiction. What interested her more, she realized, was the silence of men on this subject. She began again and the result is Sweet Old World, an exquisitely melancholic tale of a middle-aged man who longs to be a father.

In 2009 the Irish-Australian journalist David Quinn is living alone in a cottage on one of the grey stone Aran Islands, at the mouth of Galway Bay, where his sister Orla runs a B & B. David is haunted by the image of a ghost-child whose absence fills him with a ‘black and icy…feeling of extinction’.

In a quiet café in North Fitzroy, Robertson ponders the word melancholy; ‘David loves the world. He’s not a misanthrope, but the fact that his deepest wish hasn’t been fulfilled renders him vulnerable. Perhaps melancholy is what vulnerability looks like from the outside.’

One of Robertson’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to convey the infinite variety of human emotional states. ‘The problem with melancholy,’ thinks David, ‘is that melancholy doesn’t admit anger, or perhaps it’s anger suppressed’ (p.35). Robertson teases out the subtle affective transformations that can lead to dramatic shifts in people’s lives. When does embarrassment morph into shame? How does shame lead to silence, and what happens when silence becomes a habit?

’I’ve always been interested in masculine silence and the way women try to talk into that silence’ she says. ‘Why do men so often feel ashamed of wanting to be fathers? I discovered this male friend of mine was in complete despair about it but he had never talked about it, he just went about his life. And these days, with the availability of medical technologies for women and of adoption for gay male couples, a single heterosexual man is completely on his own with this desire to have children.’

Vulnerability, particularly that of children, was a dominant theme in Robertson’s last novel. Careless (Picador, 2006) won the Anita Kibble Literary Award and the Colin Roderick Award and was short-listed for half a dozen other literary prizes. It tells the story of a shy girl called Pearl whose young brother dies as a result of a random act of male violence. Robertson says she has ‘an ongoing horror of children suffering and of children not feeling safe in the world’.

In Sweet Old World the suffering child is a teenage traveller called Ettie who has an accident on the island that leaves her hospitalised in a coma. David, who has met Ettie just once, becomes her only visitor until Ettie’s mother Tania arrives from Australia. David collects Tania from the airport: ‘Her face is lovely, but he wouldn’t be able to describe it. A bright light shines from her and makes him look away, a warning light that says don’t you fucking dare.’ (p. 68) But of course he does dare and while Ettie lies silent in her hospital bed the two embark on a stop-start courtship.

Given the ubiquity – and narrative predictability – of popular romance writing, trying to convey the experience of falling in love with fresh prose must be one of the hardest tasks a writer can set themselves. Robertson is up to the challenge. She remembers the small, vivid details that most of us forget once we’ve moved from being-in-love to simply loving; the sudden sense that the world has been made to your specifications; the desire to show your lover the world through your eyes.

She describes David catching the ferry back the island and consciously trying to remember in exact detail the look of the Elvis impersonators on board, ‘so he can paint (Tania) a picture, so she can be there’.

‘One of the wonders of falling in love’, says Roberts, ‘is that the world suddenly stretches wider. It lets you out of the closet of your own life – as expansive and as rich as that might be – and gives you access into someone else’s world. Francoise Sagan said once that being in love meant having someone to look at you. I think that’s really smart, but it’s also having someone look at the way you see things.’

The growing attraction between David and Tania tantalizes the reader with the possibility of a happy ending that Robertson says ‘would have helped me sell another 10,000 copies’ of the book.

‘But I think it’s impossible to reach middle age and not be deeply defined by your past, as these two people have been. I do think character is destiny. The romantic fantasies of popular culture bear as much resemblance to real love as pornography does to real sex and I’m not in the business of peddling a romantic fantasy’.

Robertson also turns her unflinching gaze on the suffering body, both human and animal. David remembers covering a story on ‘The World’s Fastest Turkey Plucking Championship’ at an English industrial factory farm when he was a young journalist:
‘The stink of bird fear, there’s nothing in the world like it. Behind the curtain, turkeys were shitting and screaming and beating their wings; it was probably the most activity they‘d known in their lives, the closest they’d ever been to their bird natures, and it was all about to end’.

David recalls this gruesome scene when a back injury renders him immobile and bed-ridden for several days and his emotional vulnerability is suddenly mirrored by his physical incapacity: ‘The light wakes him, or it might be his pain, or hunger… Now life has come down to a few choices: should he bend his leg or keep it straight? Arm across his eyes or out to the side? Pain is the nucleus of everything.’ (p. 103)

‘I believe that once that happens in a body, an injury that is never repaired,’ says Robertson, ‘once mortality comes in that way, the difference between that sort of human body and the body that has never know pain or illness is greater than the difference between the human body and the animal body. Pain deeply insinuates itself into the way you look at the world and respond to it.’

Robertson plays with the analogy between the slow deterioration of David’s body and the erosion of his adopted home, an island that is literally falling into the sea. And as the Atlantic Ocean carves chunks off the coastline, the Irish economic crisis is gouging away the economic foundations of the island community. Everyone, it seems, is feeling vulnerable.

‘It was a very melancholy time for Ireland’, says Robertson. ‘The prosperity that came from the so-called roaring Celtic Tiger was unusual because Ireland’s history had been all about poverty and emigration and colonialism. Then the Celtic Tiger ran away from them. But melancholy is not nihilism; it’s not a failure to believe in anything. It’s an appreciation of potential riches and a sweet reflection on the gap between potential and realities – that’s the case for Ireland at that time and also for David Quinn.’