Some writers describe gorgeously: a scene, a landscape, a person’s face. They may choose unusual, apt vocabulary and images to paint familiar things afresh. Yet the reader may quickly begin to fidget. Too much description, too early, and they might give up altogether, or at least to skip past ‘the boring bits’. When will something happen? This is a relatively recent phenomenon. We put up with descriptive passages in Hardy that would never get past an editor’s desk nowadays.
But we do need to know the texture of life: a person’s distinctive looks and gestures, the quality of light that sparks a memory. These details immerse us, make the action convincing, help us to step into this other strange world and feel that it matters what happens there.
A novel published recently by new venture Margaret River Press – Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt – weaves descriptions of its lonely, searching characters and epic West Australian landscapes so seamlessly into its emotional and dramatic action that they cannot be teased apart. In this novel, in which war, exile and the rhythms and heartache of life on the land are felt through the lives of three women, Leonhardt’s descriptions are revelatory, necessary and often beautiful.
Here is Attie, working the family farm while her brother Jasper is away at war, remembering her childhood in Ceylon as she picks apples:
The Tamils, in their brightly coloured saris, were part of her childhood landscape. Every day, she had seen them working with their baskets on their backs. From a distance, they looked like giant locusts munching their way across the green terraced hillsides. Attie winced. It horrified her now recalling this childhood image, innocent though it was. The very young always delight in make believe. It is their instinct to personify or objectify almost everything they see. Yet still it stung her adult conscience that she could possibly have thought of the Tamils as anything other than human beings (107).
This is a complex moment. Attie is cast back into her colonial past, her memory of a vivid projection tainted by its callousness. Now she works on the land alone, her education of no use to her, her work arduous for all its pleasures. She goes on to entertain a brief fantasy of pregnancy, only to dismiss it as ridiculous, revealing further layers of her character.
Later, in a scene observed from the point of view of Attie’s sister-in-law Valerie, a lonely English bride waiting on Jasper’s farm for his return, approaching fire reminds her of the wild danger of this alien land:
… the three women stood on the veranda watching the rapid swell of smoke darken against the haziness of the state forest, clusters upon clusters billowing up higher and higher into the blue above. Valerie had thought it was a rain cloud at first, but now she was overwhelmed by the acrid smell of smoke, its grittiness filling the air around her (144).
Anyone who has seen the sudden building of a bushfire on the horizon will recognise this accumulation, this massing of approaching chaos. Its ‘rapid swell’, the darkening, its smell and gritty texture, the change of the air – all fill Valerie with helplessness. Jasper has told her of settlers ‘boiled alive in their rain-water tank’ and farmers ruined. While Attie goes out to help a neighbour, Valerie drinks tea, spilling it on her apron, chinking the china against her teeth (145).
Valerie’s daughter Gin, in later years, has painful cause to remember her nervous mother:
When everyone had left, and after Noel had finally padded off to the spare room, Gin had remained in the half-light listening to the silence … Everything was perfectly still apart from the ticking of the clock. Through the hush and the veil of shadows encroaching on the room, she could see a little red glow flickering. It looked like a cigarette, that ubiquitous cigarette that she kept seeing, and, suddenly, she felt the whole of her mother’s presence emerge from that glow (247).
In what begins as a description of an interlude after a distressing day, a quiet moment in the shadows of a newly emptied house, a flicker of light becomes the entire physical presence of her mother, a blow struck by memory, an image that connects the physical world with the interior world of loss in a way that is convincing and affecting.
There are many images in Finding Jasper that make such connections. A quiet moment, given full attention, reveals much about character and the ways in which memory knocks us off balance, casting new light on the world around us. This is a quiet book, in the best possible sense, unfurling its secrets stealthily and satisfyingly, letting descriptions grow into something not to be skipped past.