Empires by Nick Earls review – a novel plea to pay attention to chance and history

A soldier figurine unites characters across history and culture in this provocative if sometimes uneven new work of fiction from the prolific Brisbane writer

The Brisbane-based writer Nick Earls has a large and diverse oeuvre of novels, young adult fiction and short stories. Empires, his latest release, dives deep into how we imagine the past and the impact history has on our present as it dextrously shifts between continents and skips across time, from now to the era of Napoleon and Beethoven.

Despite being split into five parts, each set in a different place and time, the novel is in many ways a contemporary story about how the past seeps into the present. It opens in 2018 with Simon, who is learning the real estate game in the town of Girdwood, Alaska. Simon is preoccupied with a knee injury sustained in a car accident. He is worried about his wife, Lacy, who teaches cello in her home music studio. He does his best to be a stepdad to Cedar, Lacy’s son. They listen to a Spotify playlist that reminds Simon of his childhood, when he lived in Brisbane. Earls writes the texture of Simon’s life with such an eye for detail and private anxiety that, even though we don’t know what shape this narrative will take, we’re certainly along for the ride.

Simon meets Ellen, an elderly client, and it is here that the true nature of Empires is revealed. After the death of her husband, Ellen is selling the house. They had a business selling curios of the past – framed banknotes, pages from historically significant printing presses], and the like. Ellen is obsessed with the materialities of history. She shows Simon a small lead figurine of a soldier. “Napoleon. Apparently.” – “That’s the family story, at least.” The almost unending power of these tiny pieces of the past – and the stories that animate these histories – is at the core of Empires.

Part two moves us back in time, to London in 1978. Punk is just kicking off, the war is a not-too-distant memory, and the reality of what it means to be British or not – and to fit into a society stratified by class lines – is very much alive. Michael, a teenager just arrived from Brisbane with his younger brother, mother and father, is struggling to find his place. He forms a bond with his neighbour, George. A man of the theatre, George has a profound impact on Michael, showing him the kind of generous welcome that he and his family didn’t realise they needed. The soldier makes another appearance. The mystery surrounding it is added to by George: “There was a story, but it was lost. Maybe that was how curiosities worked. They weren’t made of gold or made for kings or emperors, so perhaps they slipped free of their stories more easily.” These stories about the past have a subtle power.

The third section is set in 1916, just before the Russian revolution. The fourth section moves even further back, to Vienna in 1809. Napoleon talks with Beethoven; Haydn is in his final years. This moment in time is the origin of the lead soldier – or is it? Mystery swirls around it.

These middle parts of Empires, while revealing much more of the historical depths that fascinate Earls, suffer from a lack of the immediacy that defined the first two sections. This is perhaps due to changes in style – after the seamless interior access the reader is granted earlier in the book, parts three and four are comprised of an interview transcript and diary entries, respectively. The Girdwood and London sections are so engaging, and we are so embedded and invested in these characters, that the shifts to new characters and settings break the spell. The effort to place these people and show us their anxieties would have been better suited to a much longer novel (though at 324 pages, Empires is not short). Thankfully, the final section, set in Hong Kong in 2019, returns us to the characters from the first half.

But if Empires is uneven, it’s not fatally so. There are always new details to pick up and link back to the sections of the novel set nearer to the present. Earls’ writing is detailed but inviting, giving us access to the minds of characters grappling with the push and pull of life. With its emphasis on the need to read the world super-attentively (even repeatedly), it leans towards the literary. Empires is not necessarily a challenging reading experience but the questions it asks are complex. Meditating on the way we imagine the past – its texture, colour and shape – and exploring how the past is subtly but profoundly ingrained in the present, this is a book that both provokes and entertains.

Empires by Nick Earls is out now in Australia through Vintage


Joseph Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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