I have always regarded Chris Mansell as one of Australia’s leading poets so I was a little taken back to read that she is described on the back cover of Schadenvale Road as “one of Australia’s most accomplished short fiction authors” – had I missed something? Actually I approached Schadenvale Road with a hint of apprehension, my experience reading prose by writers who are predominately poets has not always been a good one. Not everyone can make the transition from poetry to the relative freedom of prose – some can’t let go of their background and their prose reads like an extended poem with no line breaks, while others embrace the apparent freedom offered by prose and take it much too far.
My hesitation lasted two paragraphs into the first story ‘Echidna Obscura’. Mansell is a ‘natural’ fiction writer – at once her style is confident yet unobtrusive, the imagery and narrative tugs at you, dragging you into the stream and sweeping you along. ‘Echidna Obscura’ is a simple story of an artist named Echidna living in the hills outside of town and his slowly developing relationship with Elanora. As the relationship advances at glacial speed Echidna decides to go bush, taking an old camera and a roll of film. Each day he takes a single picture and returns home only when all the roll is finished. When he opens the camera, however, he finds that the film hadn’t loaded onto the sprocket correctly and the film hasn’t wound on. Almost like a metaphor for the story nothing appears to have happened on the surface but approached from a slightly different perspective the narrative is heavy and rich with meaning.
The characters in this collection are mostly outsiders. For the most part they live outside the city or towns, or if they do live in town they are physically cut off from their neighbours, like Vorzetser, the writer stuck in a town called Paradise:
….The townspeople could have been alien plants for all the notice he took of them and he was utterly unaware that there were people living in the surrounding hills. They washed past his door and handled his personal correspondence without making a ripple in his life. He wrote to important friends who lived anywhere but in Paradise and complained about the parochialism of the place without ever speaking much to anyone, He was as prejudiced and wilful as it was possible for a poet to be without exploding.
There is something almost Dickensian about the wilful poet living in almost self-imposed exile in a town called Paradise. The final irony occurs when he travels out of Paradise to receive an award and he finds himself lost in the airport – his life “balanced on a point”. He realises he can move forward or simply disappear in the crowd, not answering to his name. We don’t find out what he does.
There is more than a hint of the early Peter Carey stories in Mansell’s short fiction – those in The Fat Man in History and War Crimes where Carey exploded onto the literary scene. Like the early Carey, Mansell creates a detailed narrative, we feel as we can almost recognise some of the towns and landscapes she describes. At the same time, however, there is something just below the surface, something that knocks our perspective just a little off centre. Something disconcerting and delicious.
We can see this in ‘The One in the Room with the Ceiling of Stars’. On first reading this story appears to revolve around a woman who starts hearing voices in her head and is confined to an institution. She can, however, remember a time before the voices: “She tried to remember how she got into this situation. It seemed to her that before the voices had begun she was happy”. But even then she was an outsider:
And then she remembered the people who came. Not good, but she supposed they loved her. In truth, she had very little idea what this might mean. She tried to figure it out. It seemed to be some sort of obligation. People said , “I love you” and you were supposed to say back “I love you too” and this meant you had to do things for them.
When she first starts to hear the voices she tries to understand them as they are often in different languages. She studies and learns many different languages in order to understand them. At first her family is happy with her as she studies, but when she tells them why she is studying there was suddenly “ a lot of serious conversations in secret places”. As the voices increase so does her “imprisonment”, cut off from the outside she finds a degree of solace in a room with a rounded ceiling covered with “paintings and gilded stars.”
The voices themselves are pleading, asking for forgiveness, asking for help. “some accused her of things or demanded that she do things”. Mansell handles the build up of tension well, we sense that something has to give – but when it does it is both unexpected and perfectly rational and we pinch ourselves for not seeing it coming.
The notion of the outsider is also central to ‘Walking into Ice’ where the main character goes on a journey/quest to find a wild cat or panther. There is debate about whether the panther exists, some claim to have seen it, but whether it exists or not it represents the unease, the fear of the unknown. Of course the quest for the panther becomes a metaphor or another journey and we begin to suspect that maybe the quest has become an internal one:
I took my bearings and as comfortably as the alien creature I had become, I gathered the dark around me and walked with my flame red hair through the silent , unanswering country to continue to look for the shadowing caves of real ice.”
The notion of the ‘panther’ or big cat that prowls at night, hiding in the darkness and threatening the otherwise peace existence of the characters occurs a number of times in this collection, most noticeably in the final story ‘Lot 20 Schadenvale Road’. This story follows a woman as she becomes an outsider, discovering a ‘secret’ valley and eventually settling there in what at first appears to be an almost perfect idyllic existence. Then suddenly one night she senses something in the garden:
I can’t say I felt the presence of evil – but it was something close to evil. An absence of light that was at the same time completely empty and completely full of fear – not the observers fear , but a physical fear that it feed on, that belonged to it and nurtured it and pulled down anything within its range.
Is this the panther, the black leopard, that people sometimes think they see? For Mansell, perhaps it is this absence that provides an edge to her prose which makes it so compelling.
Schadenvale Road should cement Mansell’s reputation as one of Australia’s leading writers. Already firmly established as a major poet, it suggests that her fiction should start receiving just as much attention as her poetry.
– Mark Roberts, Rochford Street Review