Observer review: The Voices by Susan Elderkin

Excess dingo lingo spoils Susan Elderkin's ambitious portrayal of Australia, The Voices

The Voices
by Susan Elderkin
Fourth Estate £16.99, pp336

There is a lot of atmosphere in this book: the moods that hang awkwardly between ill-matched, inarticulate people; the heat and savage landscape of Western Australia; the terrible sadness that comes from not being loved.

There's so much atmosphere, in fact, that there's scarcely any room for anything else. The novel's ostensible subject is Billy Saint, a boy unloved by his bewildered car-mechanic father and sharp-tongued, disappointed mother, a kid who has more in common with the kangaroos in the bush and the rocks on the ground than with his family. But Susan Elderkin's real subject is the land, its past no longer respected, its future despoiled.

So attuned is Billy to the land that he hears its ancestral voices. But we already know that in his twenties, Billy will turn up in hospital with dreadful, mysterious injuries only previously seen on Aborigines. Doctors will want to diagnose him as schizophrenic, which is what they call it now when people hear voices. The plot, such as it is, hangs on the slow revelation of what has happened to make him like this. But far from coming into focus as he matures, the novel grows increasingly allegorical and he fades.

Elderkin's themes, including, crucially, the need to love children into their future, could easily have tipped over into triteness and sentimentality. You can see that she has decided to circumvent this by making her Voices petulant, irritable and slightly ridiculous. Though used to living in trees, they acquire televisions and mobile phones ('You think they will help?' asks the Wind) in their effort to regain communication, and grumpily smoke spliffs when they don't.

But this only works up to a point. The Voices often seem mannered, a bit irritating. The sometimes wildly surreal action can seem deliberately confusing. I found myself suspecting that the narration was withholding information, remaining wilfully opaque.

Susan Elderkin won the Betty Trask Prize for her first novel, Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains, and was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, and there are many excellent things in this book. You can't fault her powers of description: she writes of a salt lake that in summer 'crusts up and sends back the blue of the sky like a slap'.

But too often, the book reads as if she were determined to prove that she has got inside Australia and eviscerated it. She has the lingo and she has the rough rhythms, but a little goes a long way. There is too much of the 'rows of deep-fried chiko rolls, hot chooks and dingo pups, grease spots steadily seeping through the greaseproof paper wrappings'. There is nickel-mining detail overload when the action needs to gather pace rather than slow down.

The themes of The Voices are ambitious and the novel is admirable in many ways. But I kept waiting for the characters, who moved me a great deal, to coalesce into a story, to shake themselves free of the research and take off - and they didn't. I wanted to weep for Billy, and I was annoyed in the end that he was diminished, made to seem just not that important. He and the others were carrying too much weight, too much of the schema showed through, and, in the end, the novel felt just too much like an argument.


Geraldine Bedell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Observer Review: Trouble at Willow Gates by Phillip Larkin

Never mind the trenchant, brilliant poet, these school stories will send Larkin to the back of the class.

Rachel Cooke

21, Apr, 2002 @4:49 PM

Article image
Observer review: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Orange Prize-winner Kate Grenville presents a powerful portrait of the conflict between convicts and Aborigines in The Secret River, says Geraldine Bedell.

Geraldine Bedell

22, Jan, 2006 @12:14 AM

Article image
Review: Love Falls by Esther Freud

Esther Freud's Love Falls concentrates once again on the lives of adolescents, says Lisa O'Kelly.

Lisa O'Kelly

02, Jun, 2007 @11:07 PM

Thriller roundup: Sep 1

Peter Guttridge on Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy | Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman | Sweet Sunday by John Lawton | Beyond the Grave by Pierre Magnan

Peter Guttridge

31, Aug, 2002 @11:52 PM

The eternal beating of the waves

Anthony Burgess' last review for the Observer

Anthony Burgess

19, Dec, 1993 @2:44 PM

Article image
Review: The Song Before It Is Sung by Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright's fictionalisation of the generals' plot against Adolf Hitler, The Song Before It Is Sung, risks insulting the real victims.

Adam Mars-Jones

04, Feb, 2007 @11:51 PM

Article image
Review: The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva is an ambitious meditation on modern India but is overwhelmed by a deluge of facts, says Chandrahas Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury

02, Mar, 2008 @12:06 AM

Article image
Observer review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell's follow-up to the phenomenally successful Cloud Atlas is an ambitious study of adolescence, says Adam Phillips.

Adam Phillips

15, Apr, 2006 @11:58 PM

Article image
Observer review: The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills revisits the time before New Labour was new in The Scheme for Full Employment

David Jays

23, Feb, 2003 @3:38 AM

The World of Books: Aug 28

The World of Books: Can a £15,000 prize spark a renaissance in the short story?

Stephanie Merritt

27, Aug, 2005 @11:16 PM