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Books | Heather Rose has written a novel for uncertain times

Libby Robin 15 November 2019 1397 words

Paradoxical intimacy: novelist Heather Rose.

Heather Rose | Allen and Unwin | $32.99 | 424 pages

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, prize-winning Indian writer Amitav Ghosh argued that the tropes of the modern novel can’t accommodate life in a climate-changed world. For Ghosh, the rules of fiction can’t be stretched so far from the “everyday.”

In Bruny, Heather Rose has taken up the implied challenge, offering us a novel for an uncertain, unequal world in which ordinary fair-minded people are angry yet feel paralysed. Her setting is the Tasmania of the present, or the near future, in which the everyday includes globalisation, mass surveillance, climate change and unrest — in short, the everyday experiences of life in the Anthropocene. With a hypothetical, just-plausible scenario, Rose sets up a crisis that enables her to explore what might constitute progress in a world of accelerating change.

The novel can be read simply as a thriller. Its well-crafted plot tracks what happens when a big infrastructure project — a bridge connecting Bruny Island with Tasmania — proves to be a bridge too far, for some at least, and even a cause for terrorism. But this is a thriller with a serious underbelly, which the reader can dwell on and draw out — or not. It is well worth reading just for its noirish humour about the predicament of our increasingly monochrome times.

The novel’s ultimate optimism draws much from the creative arts. Rose uses her art to interweave her own reflections on how present injustices and environmental destruction have become everyday. Working contrapuntally, the internal musings of the protagonists tell a bigger story, and hold the suspense. It is a very local story, but the local is now the global.

Bruny Island (in real life) uses the slogan “An island off an island, off an island” to attract tourists, and the fictional Bruny riffs on this island-mindedness. Tasmania’s small-town scene is signalled in the curious coincidence that a single family is at the heart of all the politics. The chief protagonist is Astrid (“Ace”) Coleman, an international conflict-resolution specialist with the United Nations. Ace’s twin brother is the premier (J.C., conservative/Liberal) and her older sister is the leader of the opposition (Max, Labor). Ace spends time with her dying father (a former Labor politician), who despairs of what politics can do within and beyond his family and has withdrawn into quoting Shakespeare.

Ace, the studiously professional outsider, keeps her distance from Tasmanian politics. She is there to listen to the locals: the protesters, those in favour of the bridge and those bemused by its sudden imposition on their quiet corner. She understands Tasmania, but her outlook is global. She has been based in New York for decades: her children have grown up American. Her work has taken her to the most disadvantaged and war-torn parts of the world.

But this task is new and strange. While helping people in poverty and global strife is normal, Ace finds it acutely more difficult to deal with the possible destruction of this special place of peace, free of the cares of the world. She left Tasmania, she muses, “because you get really small out here on the perimeter of life, and life gets way too big picture.” Yet her sense of self depends on knowing that this place exists; she needs to retain the option of losing herself on the edge of the world.

At times the plot can appear too neat. Surely no government would call in an expensive international conflict-resolution specialist to sort a local dispute about a bridge? Yet, truth eerily echoes fiction, even as I was reading this novel. Senate estimates hearings in October revealed that the Morrison government had spent $190,000 on consultants Futureye as part of what it called a “social licence strategy” to help government deal with landowners along the controversial Melbourne–Brisbane inland rail line. Futureye’s role was to advise on empathy, to measure community sentiment and to provide advice on how to win over critics — exactly the role given to Ace in Bruny.

In the private reading place between writer and reader nurtured by a novel, fictional options emerge that are almost too subversive for real life, yet it is these that make Bruny ultimately satisfying. Rose seeks out readers like me, who feel flooded by the barrage of good causes we can’t take responsibility for. “There ought to be a name for the kind of overwhelm that happens when you realise there are too many things to fight,” she writes. Living in a globalising world is overpowering; it leaves you breathless and impotent. This novel is a solace, an enabling space, where the local is important and, maybe, just maybe, social licence can be “a powerful thing” in which communities who vote and pay taxes might “hold all the cards.”

The motif of tourists “getting present to themselves” at Bruny’s fictional Solitude resort echoes Rose’s earlier novel, The Museum of Modern Love, which celebrates artist Marina Abramović and her performance “Being Present.” Abramović stretches the present into a place for meditation, for “being with” the times rather than overtaken by them, by looking directly into the eyes of museum visitors. “Perhaps art was evolving into something to remind us of the power of reflection, even stillness,” Rose mused. In Bruny, she builds into the action spaces that are still, reflective and nourishing to the soul. She argues for the power vested in the arts: “Nobody with a strong culture looks like they can be bought.”

Central to the plot is the figure of Gilbert Farris, leader of the Bruny Friends Group, the protest group defending the island against the bridge. Rose positions Farris, whose international fame is based on a bestseller, The Homogenocene, as practically and theoretically concerned about loss of social and cultural diversity, even as he also defends his private right to his writing paradise. Farris is fictional, but the concept of a Homogenocene is not: it is one of the terms used to refer to the rupture that sees our world moving beyond the relatively stable epoch of the Holocene into a new era where the old rules no longer apply. The Anthropocene is another of these terms — its focus is on how humans have become geological forces, shaping the physical trajectory of Earth. The Homogenocene emphasises the loss of diversity, biodiversity and cultural diversity, and the homogenising “one size fits all” model of the market economy.

Both Anthropocene (coined in 2000) and Homogenocene (coined in 1999) appeared during the period of millennial anxiety, and have since gained traction. With markets amorally accelerating the growing gap between rich and poor, rapid ecological and psychological change have become increasingly interdependent. What should a responsible individual do in such times?

Not all literary critics accept “cli-fi” (climate fiction) as serious fiction: science fiction has traditionally been treated as a genre apart, though this is changing with rising scientific literacy and the sense that both the sciences and the arts are ways to make sense of the world. Climate change is inherently uncanny and unpredictable. It is beyond classic scientific methods, yet it is also intensely physical, as anyone bearing the brunt of the rising firestorms and sea levels knows. The artist, according to cognitive scientist and philosopher Jerome Bruner, must exploit “metaphor” rather than prediction: her role is to “join dissimilar experiences by finding the image or the symbol that writes them at some emotional level of meaning.” That depends on getting past the “literal mode of connecting” that is necessary to prediction. This is a particular task for cli-fi, where the predictive mode (the language of science) sometimes suggests connections too literal for metaphorical power.

Changed weather conditions, and the high-carbon lifestyles causing them, are becoming increasingly familiar. Yet their menace and uncertainty is not really everyday for a novelist, says Amitav Ghosh. The surprises and shocks are too great for the background, he says, yet they are a distraction in the foreground of the novel. Climate change is one of many background forces in Bruny, along with injustice, media concentration, mass surveillance, and distant authoritarian control by democratically elected governments. Rose grapples with the interactions between them — the Homogenocene effect — but her novel foregrounds personal responsibility in a creative space where she and her reader connect. In telling a breathless story of destruction and global power struggles, she offers a paradoxical intimacy that empowers and refreshes the reader. •