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.