Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Long Afternoon of the World
by Graeme Kinross-Smith
July 2007, Paperback, 368 PP, ISBN 9781862547377, $32.95
Long Afternoon of the World by Graeme Kinross-Smith, is a Proustian story which follows the reminiscence of Tim Menzies as he works through a packet of letters and photographs. The photographs, like the taste of a sweet biscuit, stimulate stories in Menzies’ mind, bringing him back to people and places from his childhood. It’s an internal journey, and one which leads to a place of self-discovery which isn’t very far from the place it started from.
The story itself is fragmented, with a diffuse plot line. Menzies ‘present’ appears to be the point of mid-life crisis. His marriage has fallen apart. His children have drifted away. His parents are dead, or in the final throes of death. He is 46, and the future is something to be imagined, created, and claimed. But time is circular and shifting. Is Menzies really 46? The narrator seems much older, and the prose much more elegiac. We read that Menzies was a child in Melbourne in 1942. So for Menzies to be 46 the book must be set in 1988. And yet there are few indicators to suggest that the time is anything other than the reader’s present (that is, 2007). The curser stops blinking on the computer screen, and computers weren’t prevalent in 1988 (however omnipresent they seem now). Menzies hasn’t yet met his future lover Rosa, and yet she has always been there, and is tangibly there, in the form of Adela as the novel progresses. The present tense is as unclear as the past; as vague and misty as the future.
There is a kind of deliberate narrative timewarp that gives the book the sense of being the last self-examination of a man at the end, rather than then middle of his life. One gets the feeling that what we’re being told, in Menzies’ discovery of his history, is a story that amounts to something bigger than the simple uncovering of a family secret. That secret is only another bite of the madeleine; another thread in the overall quilt that makes up this novel:
I am in the past. I hear my father Will’s voice. He is raiding a glass of beer, looking at it, then looking at me. I can see it. ‘To thy two bright eyes! May they never meet.’ And he laughs. It is a nervous sound. It is a laugh that comes from another time. Someone else is there but I can’t tell who. It is another place, and for a moment I don’t know where and when. It fades. But I am disembodied. I float above the tennis in the bow. (162)
There is the mystery, easily guessed, around Alex Cummings, and the impact that has on Menzies’ self-knowledge. The relationship between Alex, Louise, Will, and Menzies is one which stays constant through the shifting sands of Cancer, life, loss, and death. One of Menzies’ most compelling discoveries is that love is a constant which is undiminished by the changes that take place in Menzies’ life. As the novel progresses, we realise that even life and death aren’t constant. Louise and Will are dead, but death, like life, is something to be plundered, picked at, and created in the blinking cursor. Divorce is a force much more destructive than death. The dissolving of Menzies’ marriage is something that precedes the book’s opening, and Menzies spends much time exploring the pain around that loss. Patricia, however, is much more absent than Louise or Will. She functions as an absence, only made visible by the presence of Menzies’ children Susan and Jesse, while even in death, Menzie’s mother Louise and father Will remain tangible presences.
Kinross-Smith’s writing itself is lovely, evoking Menzies’ childhood in brief poetic images of light and dust: a child’s sense of his family – images of his aunt and uncle fighting, of death, of love, of music, of war. The work is particularly powerful when evoking a time and place reliant on landscape:
Remind yourself of this place. Far over, the sun has come up rose, dusting the grey of the vines that are still in shadow. Like a darker frieze behind run the shocks and recesses of the long armies of river red gum. Behind me a single car door shuts tentatively down the far end of the motel, as if testing the dawn. There will be longueurs of heat later in the day, I think, and the tresses of the willows along the river will lean down to the water near the wharves’ white stanchions. (211)
In the end, we’re left with the sense that this is a complete reckoning, rather than a midlife one. Though Long Afternoon is rooted in specific places — a house on Cicero Street in Melbourne in the 40s, a Victorian farm at Berriwillock or a Camberwell creek in the 50s, a lonely church in the 80s, shadows and light touching skin (like “warm smoke”), a tennis court in the 30s, an awkward reunion of strangers in Sydney — it hardly seems possible that this can all come together, and yet, without much of plot or a clean linear structure, the novel does amount to something. There is a forward motion and by the time we reach the end, the reader feels that there is some sense not only of a life lived, but of the revelation of universal meaning around every life.
The photographs become everyone’s close people. The times and places become our own memories of what we’ve known, and been and where we’ve ended. It is, indeed, a long afternoon – and at the end of it is evening. Though this isn’t a fast novel to read, nor does it leave the reader with a denouement in any sense. Yet it is both beautiful, and powerful in its ability to draw out, like a great poem, the core meaning of a moment. Put together into a series of moments, that core meaning almost becomes epic.
Listen to an interview with author Graeme Kinross-Smith here at The Compulsive Reader talks.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.