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Tabula Rasa


by Jason Nahrung. Twelfth Planet Press, 2012

Reviewed by Kyla Ward, 2012

"I mean, for Christ's sake, Mel; you're a grown woman. Why do you read this trash?"

"It's imagination, Richard. It's entertaining. It takes me away."

"Takes you away from what?..."

Salvage, by Jason NahrungEveryone has something they need to escape from, even if just for a week or two. What better place than a quiet island off the Queensland coast? Melanie knows in her heart that it's going to take more than this to ease the trauma of a late-term miscarriage and to save a marriage that was already floundering, but you have to start somewhere. Life, after all, goes on.

The horror here is, initially, the sticky, bloody awfulness of normal life, full of accident and the unsaid, and this is why the setting works. Beach-front cabins a few weeks in advance of the holiday season, sun, surf and bushland: Nahrung shows us fear in a handful of sand and incrementally increasing flies. When the attempted reconciliation hits the rocks, another escape presents in Helena, a beautiful Greek woman who suffers from a chronic illness and a husband as overprotective as Mel's is careless. There is more going on here than Mel is at first able to put together and by the time she does, death may be the only escape that is left.

In this short novel (167 pages), Nahrung achieves near seamless slippage from the natural, if horrible, world of one suffering woman to the unnatural world of another. This is the essential trick of supernatural horror and he performs it brilliantly. He also creates a space for a meditation on life and death, and suggests its necessity. For Mel is confronting some baseline questions, and I found the refusal of people to acknowledge this or grant any importance to the process ("How long is this going to take?", "…we can try again.") to be one of the book's most disturbing elements.

It's a character piece through and through, and one dealing with intimacy at that. One dealing with all the complications of pregnancy, surgery and marital sex, at that. Melanie is a character with a body, even if "…for months it had seemed little more than meat, a cage for her sorrow." It is her body and her attempts to share it have backfired, leaving her quivering and isolated, with only the dregs of her self esteem to draw on.

Should an author who, to say, lacks the appropriate bits, be attempting such a portrayal? In my humble opinion, the reader who demands this must also demand that Nahrung has fangs – and there's the only clue I'm giving in that department. In any case, when the work is done this well, the reader should simply breathe a sigh of relief and keep going (anyone still unhappy by the end is directed to Kirstyn McDermott's Madigan Mine). All the characters, including hubby Richard, are excellent. The yearning and frustration of his own attempts to deal are real, as are the shortcomings of his masculine code (I swear, you can tell exactly what his father was like), which eventually brings disaster upon them all. And then there is Helena. Helena, whose agony reflects Melanie's in such deep, dark water.

Water pervades the book: the differing moods of the ocean, the threatening and then breaking storm, Melanie's nightmares. Other fluids have their place, but in the right circumstances, water can be more terrifying than blood, which is after all, the life. The prose ebbs and flows appropriately, by turns powerful and gentle, ghastly and beautiful – this is a beautiful, a sensual book. The overall simmering atmosphere of any scene will suddenly focus on the itch of a sand fly bite, the scent of dead roses, or a pair of cornflower blue panties. The reader may wish to pay attention to such details. This is the author of The Darkness Within, and shorts such as "Children of the Cane" (in Dead, Red Heart, ed. Russell B. Farr, Ticonderoga Press, 2011) in fine form – alright, perhaps that is another clue. In any case, his use of the relevant mythos is deft.

Upon my initial reading, I did find the ending abrupt. This may be related to the fact that the last 30 pages of the volume are occupied by an extract from a forthcoming Twelfth Planet publication and in-house ads, and I expected the story to run longer. Because upon reflection, everything in the plot and imagery led up to this act, it concluded the narrative and was in character for all concerned. There are certainly other places the story could have gone and for another author, this might have been the start of a much broader work. I personally craved further details of Melanie's life, to ground the possibilities of Option C. But Salvage is a short novel and gains intensity thereby.

The cover, featuring a painting by Dion Hamill, is handsome and appropriate, and the book as a whole well-produced. In conclusion, this is a fine read that resonates well beyond its length and proves, once and for all, that you can goth out at the beach.


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