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Garry Disher's "The Sunken Road"

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THE READER





__ THE SUNKEN ROAD
_________ Garry Disher


 



 
THE SUNKEN ROAD
by Garry Disher

US: Trafalgar Square; ISBN 1 85702 485 0, price through Amazon.com $16.95

UK: Fourth Estate, ISBN 1 85702 664 0, price 6.99


GRAHAM BRACK | Garry Disher is an Australian who spent some time on a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University. He is an experienced short-story writer and it is this background that has enabled him to produce "The Sunken Road".

It is a full-length novel told in a collection of short chapters, each three to six pages long and bearing an enigmatic title -- "Soil", "Books", "Naked" are just three. Each chapter recounts events in the life of a woman in South Australia. Anna was born in 1949, and the story was written in 1996, but it ranges ahead to tell what will happen when Anna is an old woman, presumably around thirty years from now.

Structured like human memories, the book takes an event, deals with it in passing as it handles some other theme, then returns to expand upon it later. There are, for example, numerous references to the death of Anna's son, but whilst the early ones only tell us that he died, later we will learn where he died, when he died, and why he died, each told in a separate reference. Memories come to the fore and fade to the background, are regained and lost, perhaps invented, and give us an original insight into a character's mind. The reader has to remind himself that this woman's story is being told by a male writer, so strikingly feminine are its concerns and its language; to this male, at least, Disher's words sound like a woman's thoughts. We may both be wrong, but we agree.

Anna's life is sad, hard and painful, yet there is joy in it. It is spartan, but intense, bleak like the parched landscape, unforgiving like the family into which she marries, littered with relationships that don't quite work, loves that drift away, chances that slip from the grasp. The honesty of the story is compelling, leaving the reader hoping for a happy ending for Anna, but suspecting that there cannot be one. Despite this, she remains optimistic, and she survives. The comparison is fanciful, but I cannot help thinking of Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", and the character of Ma Joad as she would have been in her younger years.

If the life it tells is a commonplace one, then perhaps it redounds to Disher's credit that he has shown us how enthralling an ordinary life can be. He might have written a hundred stories besides this, and the masterly technique with which he unfolds Anna's tale would lend interest to them. Maybe the finest compliment I can pay to "The Sunken Road" is this; many a time I have read a book and thought "If I'd imagined that plot, I could have written this"; sometimes I tell myself that if I could learn to handle dialogue and language, I might have composed such-and-such a book; but I have no idea how I could ever write a book such as Disher has written. Read it alone, and in peace, and let it wrap you up.



GRAHAM BRACK , a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.



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