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Monday, 2 January 2012

The Vintage and The Gleaning - Jeremy Chambers

This novel has been longlisted for the 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (nominated by the State Library of Victoria, and Shortlisted for the Colin Roderick Award 2010 – an award presented annually by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies at the James Cook University in Queensland for “the best book published in Australia which deals with any aspect of Australian life”). This is a debut novel from Jeremy Chambers, an ex-vineyard worker who seems to have seamlessly switched careers to writing.

I picked this one up based on a great review in “The Weekend Australian” and given it was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award I thought I’d give it a go to break up being stuck in the 1970’s of English Literature (as I’m going through the Booker shortlists of that time).

The story roughly covers a week in the life of our narrator, Smithy, an ex-shearer broken down, suffering from a life of alcohol abuse, but working days in a vineyard and observing the nightly goings on at one of the local pubs. For some un-explained reason Smithy takes pity on Charlotte, a local whose husband is about to be released from a prison sentence that he served for domestic violence.

I can imagine overseas readers really struggling with some of the language and terms here, although personally being a frequent visitor to these regions, the descriptions of Northern Victorian vineyards, the heat, dust, flies, vegetation is magnificent:

Brief canopies of trees cast a scattered shade, sunlight glancing through the still shadows. Their bark is thick and scarred and they creak in the heat. The deafening screech of cicadas. I break a branch from a stringy-bark and peel it to its pale wood, pummelling the bald stick against the ground as I go.

The language and muted conversations (if they could be classed as conversations) seem a true reflection of the labourers in a harsh land. Little to say and no substance to a lot of it. I can perfectly understand how this could infuriate a number of readers, however I felt it brought an authenticity to the novel. The scenes in the pubs also having a deeply honest ring:

Lips, once loosened, pour, and the voices continue raised, men spewing forth what they have kept inside themselves for days or weeks or for a lifetime and they see only the blur of faces and they speak not to men but to something greater than men and they do not know that it is empty and uncaring. And there are men who talk and there are men who are silent and those who talk do not know what they are saying and those who are silent do not listen, but drink for the very silence of their souls. And I was such a man.

There are two sections of the book that infuriated me no-end, especially the section towards the end, both being long monologues by Charlotte and her search for meaning in her life. Personally I found the character self-infatuated, simple and her whole self-obsession had me yearning for her to leave the novel. This is not necessarily a criticism, as Chambers could well be sketching a character who is meant to be selfish and unaware of Smithy’s similar struggles with finding meaning in his life.

For a slice of Aussie Literature that captures the essence of primary producers, the drought, the unrelenting toil and the worthlessness of such this is a magnificent debut novel. Something a lot closer to home than Tim Winton’s continual descriptions of the West.  Personally I can’t see it making the short list for this year’s IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards, but a hearty congratulations to Jeremy Chambers for making such a prestigious list with a debut novel. 

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