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Tabula Rasa

The Scarlet Rider

by Lucy Sussex, Ticonderoga Publications 2016 (1996)

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

The Scarlet Rider, by by Lucy Sussex

A writer is writing. She is selecting the right words to tell her story. This is a tricky and even dangerous business, for vengeance does not mean justice, negligence does not mean murder, and not even the title "orphan" is transparent. In short, words have consequences, and, if Mel can prove that the author of The Scarlet Rider was a woman, then that will have consequences too.

A recent arts graduate, Mel is so desperate for a job she agrees to a seemingly impossible task: identify the author of an anonymous novel serialised in an Australian newspaper during the 1860s. But, drawing on a memory of her childhood, she makes an almost immediate breakthrough. In her young life, Mel has already seen more than her share of tragedy, so maybe that's why the story affects her so personally. But as the coincidences begin to add up, she is forced to consider an alternative explanation.

"I felt like a huntress early in my search, but Geraldo reversed the chase, in the Fox and Hounds, making me prey, the creature hunted. He lost me, but there's someone else in pursuit, who's put an a in "hunted", making me feel haunted..."

In Melbourne, as conjured by Lucy Sussex, a busy traffic intersection can be transmuted into the gold and glass of an antique mirror. Antique mirrors,meanwhile, pack a wicked punch. Libraries and archives are repositories of the most interesting people imaginable, any of whom might well be a medium. In such a milieu, it is no great step to accept presences lurking behind one and influencing one's actions. Yet, are they benign, merely wanting the truth to out, or inimical to the living?

Exquisitely written and as carefully constructed as a Victorian acroustic, The Scarlet Rider is a rare find indeed. Taking on Australian history--a notoriously duplicitous beast--and making it relevant to an Australian present is something few genre writers would dare and fewer still succeed in. The Scarlet Rider dramatises the process of research, with verbal fencing matches, last-minute dashes across the city to make connections or retrieve a precious manuscript, and of course, the friction between Mel's growing obsession (and her growing confidence and self-respect) and her friends from university, with whom she shares a squalid apartment.

"They kissed, and Mel smelt old wood pulp in the fluffy hair, which was almost the same shade as May's skin, both being a sallow, jaundiced colour suggestive of decaying paper. Mayzee was an invalid, but Mel was still half-inclined to ascribe her colouring to the paperbacks she loved."

Sheer grotesquerie. But even here, we must be careful of words. "I never knew 'research' was a synonym for 'hanky-panky'."

Sussex is known for her historical and literary non-fiction, editing and reviews, as well as fiction. Her only adult novel to date (though she has written severally for young adults), The Scarlet Rider won the Ditmar Award upon its first release and, to my mind, is as perceptive and relevant today. Contrary to popular belief, not all research can be conducted on the net and I cannot believe the prospect for arts graduates has improved. Above all, the search for origins has grown no easier and requires no less courage.

To further explore Sussex's ouvere, I would recommend her collections of shorter fiction, with an eye to such gems as "La Sentinelle" (another Ditmar and Aurealis winner, showcasing her ability to enchant the present with history) and the chilling "The Revenant", (which makes one think that perhaps Mel got off easy in her encounters with the dead). But The Scarlet Rider is the point not only to begin or expand your appreciation of this author, but of an overlooked fragment of time.


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