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Louis Nowra “Ice” (2008)

02 Nov

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 Ice That’s my rating; not everyone agrees.

I have to admit I had my doubts for a while, but once I had travelled a bit further with the novel I found myself increasingly bowled over by it. It is definitely up there with my best reads of 2009 – close to the top.

One dissenter from my view is Tim Milfull:

Malcolm McEacharn was one of those larger-than-life nineteenth-century figures: a self-made man who built up a massive fortune on the back of a Victorian-era obsession with industry and technology. He revolutionised refrigerated transport in a time when export industries were becoming large-scale, modernised Melbourne’s transport system, became mayor of the city, represented the region in federal parliament, and permanently changed the face of his adopted city. The man’s achievements were many, and his exploits and adventures similar in number—all perfect fodder for biography, especially given the reading public’s insatiable appetite for creative nonfiction. Why then, in his latest novel Ice, would memoirist, essayist, playwright and scriptwriter Louis Nowra choose to have a fictional character read a poorly-written, magic realist biography of Malcolm McEacharn to his comatose wife?

… When I read the blurb outlining the stories within Ice, I was immediately hooked by Nowra’s premise, especially after his superb work co-writing the SBS series First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia. I was prepared to invest myself in an epic love affair that spanned more than half a century, and drew in characters over an even longer time. Sadly, more than 300-pages later, I found myself more frustrated than sated by romance or transported to another universe.

A100257 Certainly McEachern – of whom I had never heard before (he is after all mainly Melbourne!) – was a fascinating character in real life.

Closer to me but with some reservations is Historical fantasy skates on thin ice by Andrew Riemer.

… Colonial society is pictured in vivid, at times compelling ways. There are memorable images of Melbourne’s nouveau riche magnificence – which soon peters out into muddy marshes and shanty towns. Nineteenth-century Sydney is vividly depicted, too. I was also impressed by Nowra’s sketches of the Victorian goldfields, particularly by a description of Bendigo’s splendid palaces of commerce lining a dusty, treeless road from nowhere, going nowhere.

A novel needs more than this, however, to engage its readers, to make McEacharn interesting, to give him an inner life. Nowra’s secret history of the colonial tycoon is filled with all kinds of ingenious though sometimes unhistorical conjectures and inventions.

The first of these, at the beginning of the novel, is a nice conceit. On a stifling summer day, a ship arrives at Circular Quay towing a gleaming iceberg. The iceberg was McEacharn’s first great adventure, an anticipation of his subsequent (and historical) attempts to develop ways of keeping meat frozen on the long sea voyage to London. How ice preserves flesh that would otherwise decay is a leitmotiv throughout the novel. The iceberg itself conceals a secret: the perfectly preserved body of a young seaman who died in the Southern Ocean decades earlier….

Ice transforms workaday history into an at times lurid romance. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Depicting McEacharn’s grand obsession leads Nowra into several traps from which he does not extricate himself (or his novel) very happily. A chamber of horrors fantasia played out in the basement of McEacharn’s mansion struck me as ludicrous. Nor could I see much point to the narrative surrounding this historical fantasy – except, that is, for a play on the word "ice".

It is the story of Beatrice, who sank into a coma after she was mugged by a man high on ice. At the time, she was working on a biography of McEacharn. Her grieving husband, a translator of scientific papers and articles, decides to complete the project, and tells her inert body about what he has accomplished. Unnecessarily, it seems to me, he insists on spelling out for her the connection between the two meanings of "ice".

Yes, I do share some of these reservations but I was prepared to go with Nowra I have to say – though not at first.

Finally, Maggie Ball is an enthusiast.

There’s a Dickensian grandeur to Ice which is made all the more powerful by the way in which Nowra twists time’s arrow. Those reading this solely as an historical fiction may be made uncomfortable by the way in which the reader is drawn into the story, placed in the role of the unconscious Beatrice; as silent confident. For those of us who like our fiction as rich, complex, and painful as possible, Ice is a tremendous story, and one which begs to be read more than once.

That is also my conclusion.

See also Louis Nowra on Ice from ABC’s Book Show.

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