‘Joyful’ by Robert Hillman – A Review

There’s a CD I listen to when I want to write about something serious or something true or sad. It is Disc Two of ‘Dirt Music’, the album compiled by Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans to accompany Winton’s great and sad book of that name. Two tracks on the disc speak from the darkest room in the house of sorrow. (I refer to Sculthorpe’s ‘Dijille’ and to ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ by Arvo Part). The grief is absolute. It neither cries nor shouts nor tears its hair out. It simply quivers and ultimately exhausts itself and lapses into barely audible human breaths. And thus into harmony with life. The experience leaves me quiet, reconciled – I suppose – by sheer truth. And beauty.

What has that to do with Robert Hillman’s new book, “Joyful”?  I read a passage in the later part of the novel where a character who has lost his only two children weeps silently in the utter darkness of a room in the mansion that gives the book its name. His quivering presence is sensed by his host, Leon Joyce, owner of “Joyful”. Joyce, who has been observing his own prolonged season of bottomless grief, stands, wordless and motionless. The weeping one comes to realise he is not alone. Each sorrows in silence, both men understand. No sign, no word. But something beyond words is known: the two men and the grateful reader make their way from that room in “Joyful” somehow reconciled to loss. And that is what Hillman’s book is about – its chief theme – how we humans risk all and lose all when we (inevitably) invest in passion.

Robert Hillman is not famous for misery, any more than Winton. The misery is there in the book as it is in life. But “Joyful” is also a story of the greatest vitality, the most audacious imagination, the most original characters, (from the carnal priest who absolves himself habitually, to Dally the Wordsworth-loving Iraqi Kurd, to the sexually hyperactive Tess, to the hapless Emily who cannot love any man who loves her, to the world-weary, gusset-guzzling, false-poet Daniel.) And the book is full of gems from the bowels of Hillman’s imagination that made me roar with unexpected belly laughing.

I defy the reader to get through “Joyful” without shedding tears of mirth and tears of joy. In short, I like it. I admire it. I respect it, I envy it, I treasure it. I’ll remember it.

joyful“Joyful’s” characters are destined to live in memory alongside Winton’s Fish and Lamb families that emerged from “Cloudstreet” and took up lodging in a nation’s treasury.

Text published “joyful.” Howard Goldenberg will launch it at Readings in Carlton at 6.30 pm on Wednesday 7 May. Please come along.

Tracks

Tracks

Tracks

Tiny cinema. Although the tickets are numbered, you can sit where you like, the audience is so sparse.
Opening images of a waif, a child in a yellow dress, walking. You see her from behind as she walks before you. The camera – and your eyes – follow her tracks.
The remainder of the slow movie is much the same: the waif, now of adult years, walks and the watcher follows her tracks. “Tracks” is the name of the movie and the name of Robyn Davidson’s book that preceded it by some decades.

The adult waif informs unbelieving Centralians, “I am going to walk to the ocean.” She speaks with an affect of subdued dourness. There is a tinge of defiance in anticipation of skepticism. The character is defensive, often enough sour. A person alone, she imagines she is independent of approval, of fellowship. Halfway from Alice to the WA coast she discovers, suddenly, violently, her human need. She practically rapes her astonished companion, the awkward photographer whose incursions into her aloneness she resents and finally accepts. Clumsy in his American optimism and belief and cheer, he saves her life by dropping jerry cans of water ahead on her route.

The movie has little dialogue. The silence speaks, the emptiness of the continent speaks. Motifs recur – sand as the tabula rasa of existence, fire as companion, water as vivifier. And the land, “country” in the language of her Aboriginal friends ( she makes a few friends, all of whom exist on the uttermost edges of Australian society. In the unexpected sweetness of the waif’s friends the movie approaches caricature. The traces of sentimentality are forgiven, offset as they are by the central character’s acerbity.)
The land, on the other hand, is eloquent and true. No matter how dramatic the image of hill, of shimmering emptiness, of spinifex, of purpling distant ridges, those images are true. The land – tracked in this way only by Davidson, the lost Leichhardt and Aborigines – is immutably itself.

This viewer, watching Davidson’s traverse, felt the flood of deep knowing, of coming home.
This land is the home of us whitefellas, a home known uniquely to relatively few, characters like Davidson, like Rod Moss, (artist and author of “The Hard Light of Day” and “One Thousand Cuts”). Their knowing is informed by the blackfellas who have shown them their home.

If you’ve missed this movie, don’t worry. Here for five minutes, gone tomorrow, I think it will never disappear. Like Davidson’s book the movie will be sought and valued so long as whitefellas are curious about the land, so long as we ponder our human aloneness.