Landscapes, Christine Lai’s debut novel, powerfully combines memory, feminism and environmentalism. Set in the near-future, raw realities, emotional and physical, speak to the reader of today’s world, focusing the gaze inwards where “the art of memory… [forms] visual placeholders for objects, people, or ideas, and deposit[s] them into an imaginary building erected in the mind.” Sadly, the near future in Landscapes bears the chilling images of the climate terror of this summer (the fires, the floods). In its essence this is a novel about reflecting stock and starting anew, seeing and preserving, accepting and appreciating minute beauty — a narrative that calls us to remember that “Nature is a brilliant sculptor.”
The prologue introduces us to J.M.W. Turner’s fascination with the ruins of the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress in Germany, thus outlining the skeleton and setting the colour palette of the narrative. Narrated as a diary with interludes of art history criticism, interspersed with catalogue entries that read like obituaries for a lost world, the form of the book defies conventional novel form. The reader is immersed in what seems a devastated environment where “human and non-human animals” struggle to survive, yet you could smell the Earth and experience the desire for a rebirth, inherent in each of us, between the lines.
Even now, as aridness eats through the outside world, the weeds and yellow flowers that have flourished in the aftermath of the disaster are protected by the shadows and nourished by the water that drips from the broken pipe. … This spot of green is the only place where I allow water to drip away unchecked; these flowers the only luxury I permit myself to keep in these days of want and longing.
We are in Mornington Hall, once a grand stately home used by its owner to showcase his wealth, now a building fallen into ruins after earthquakes and floods — ecological disaster. The narrator, Penelope, an archivist and librarian, and her partner, Aidan, the owner of the house, finally resign themselves to sell the land after having spent a couple of decades restoring and lovingly maintaining it. Over the course of seven months, Penelope catalogues the remaining art pieces and objects of value in Mornington Hall — delicate time for her to let go of possessions, reconcile with loss and face the trauma she suffered at the hands of Julian, Aidan’s brother.
The reader is invited to step into a gallery to gaze upon Penelope’s world from ever changing vantage points — physical and emotional, past and present, real and imagined. The catalogue entries of objects sprinkled through the diary focus the mind, allowing time to reflect and absorb the landscapes of the characters’ souls, the ever-changing landscape of Mornington Hall, and juxtapose those against the landscapes that start to emerge in the reader’s own imagination. The art history criticism calls to mind Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels through the Paintbox, though in Landscapes we travel through brilliant images of violence and depictions of disaster (Turner’s A View on the Seine, Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Distance, Poussin’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women, Rubens’s The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, Titian’s The Rape of Europa and Edgar Degas’s La Viol). Penelope’s diary considers the works of Louise Bourgeois, Kafka, W.G. Sebald, Annie Ernaux and Rainer Marie Rilke.
The visitors, and inhabitants of Mornington Hall, once wore the mask of opulence, as Julian still does, but the children of the current inhabitants “like many others in the world, live a childhood untethered from the material comforts that once bespoke a wholesome life.” Amongst all the destruction, there is tenderness, warmth and humanity seeping through the lines:
I call them travellers because not all of them are refugees. They are also not all wanderers, for they have destinations, even if the gates might be closed to them. In all cases, though, they are bodies in transition, moving toward uncertain points in the future.
Penelope’s calling the current inhabitants of Mornington Hall “travellers” prompts the reader to reflect on their own life and all the “travels” they were compelled to make in it.
Christine Lai has written a novel of extraordinary power. The ephemeral quality of all things material, the brutal “so-called heroic rape tradition in Western art” and the violence experienced by Penelope, are set against the broader canvas of environmental disaster. But the novel also prompts questions about our viewing of art works, our attempts to reckon with the past, as its “images …[seek] to latch on to [us], our ability to ‘inhabit silence and stillness’” because “‘In silence, the mind also reflects on the work of repair’” and calls us to examine our desire to possess objects, art and people.
Landscapes is available now from Two Dollar Radio.