Landscape and Trauma in Amanda Lohrey's Vertigo
The Australian Landscape has long been represented in oils, histories and literature. Its uniqueness has been appreciated by artists from all over the world and it is this setting which takes centrepiece in Amanda Lohrey’s novel, Vertigo.
Aspiring to ‘simply be’ (14) the urbane couple, Luke and Anna are attracted to the ‘uncultivated’ Garra Nalla for its landscape which is described as 'out of time’ (16). Although it is a stark contrast to the pace of life Luke and Anna have left behind, Lohrey practices restraint by not demonising either. In the transition of her new lifestyle, Anna takes a break from the persistent winds which accompany the long anticipation of rain at her Homestead and instead returns to the city where she enjoys the cityscapes in the evening. 'She loves the lurid metropolitan sunsets, and she cannot see how these flushed and burnished skies are inferior to what they look out on from the veranda at Garra Nalla' (75).
Interwoven with the description of the land and is its inhabitants, Gil, a resourceful and unassuming neighbour and the stoic Alan and Bette Watts, is a personal story with a more universal character. It lingers in both, the lives of the main characters, and the reader, and gently meanders to a natural resolution with the aid of the catalyst of the fire. Traumas buried deep in the subconscious are revealed through Lohrey’s seamless passage between Luke and Anna’s thoughts and what becomes apparent is a trauma which they cannot admit even to each other : 'the day he thought he had put out of his mind once and for all' (131).
The novel lends itself well to the elective, Distinctly Visual as Lohrey constructs a mosaic of images by which to tell a story of layered emotion. Foremost amongst these is the mystical space between real and imagined where we all see what could have been…'the boy', and how this image has a direct impact on the action, or inaction of each character. Lohrey also employs key objects which resonate in clarity and meaning; the 'navy ribbed sweater’ (p 131) which Luke was wearing when he 'sprinkled the boy's ashes over the white tipped waves' is 'discarded on the bed, because he could not bear the thought that it might come to any harm'. With a twist of fate, the ember which makes its way into the house smoulders into the fire-resistant wool and this 'most likely saved the house'. Bird watching is an interest of Luke's as well as a motif throughout to describe concepts such as commonality: 'gulls are gulls' (74), a sense of loss: 'like some migratory bird' (76) or 'the intimacy when men are together, away from women,' which is likened to a 'flock of birds' (136). Dreams also allow access to another dimension of character, whether it is the peaceful 'tidal wave that submerges the settlement in a depth of clear green water' (36) experienced by Luke, or the boy waving at the back door (134) giving Anna some sort of closure.
But most fascinating is the parallel world set up by Lohrey in which each partner has their own escape which not only serves as an alternative world to the quiet of the bush, but possibly to each other. The graphic war coverage of Iraq, is relayed late into the night of Anna's lounge room via CNN where the 'burning tank, upended, bodies splayed on the road, billowing smoke...' (66) makes for haunting yet familiar imagery to a contemporary audience. While Luke chooses to indulge in the ‘exotic tomes of a religious pilgrimage of Sir Frederick Treves’ (39) which is 'An Account of a Tour of Palestine'. Both places give a graphic description of the Middle East - a land far away, but with the native horror they are about to experience of a 'fireball of smoke and flaming embers hurtling into the backyard', the threat may not be so distant after all.
Suggested related text: Fly Away Peter by David Malouf