A review of Magellenica by Justin Lowe

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Justin Lowe
ISBN:9781409204862, Hardback, 292 pages, Download: $5.00, Hardcover Print: $39.99

The verse novel is a tricky form to master. It requires combining the power of story and its narrative progression, with the instant impact of poetry. Another complexity is trying to keep track of who’s talking, and all of the normal complications of a standard novel such as setting, and time sequencing, without losing the flow and power of each word, or each poem. A sequel to a verse novel is even harder to master. But Justin Lowe is not one to shy away from a literary challenge. His last verse novel The Great Big Show was set during World War I, following the experiences of a range of characters as they fight within the war, are injured, or struggle with the loneliness and fear of being left behind. In Magellenica, only one real character remains from The Great Big Show: Albermarle Darcy, DSO, or Albie, as he is often referred to. He returns from the trenches in 1924, scarred both physically and mentally. The war over, most of his friends gone, and his mother is dying. She is all he has left, so when she dies, he must completely remake his world:

my mother’s dying
was an odd kind of blessing for us both
she saw me home safe
through the patches in her fever
and then she left me
while I was changing her garlic presses (92-3, “Georgia”)

Throughout the book are striking lithographs by Suzie Bower, whose painting also graces the cover. The art creates an odd sense of distortion, as if the reader were in a dream. It compliments the work, which also has a dreamlike effect on the reader, nicely. Although the focus and landscape of Magellenica is much smaller in sweep than in the The Great Big Showthe format is similar, with the reader getting a series of incomplete hints – emotive responses; sensual impressions — a slow, painful progression on an elliptical path. The novel doesn’t really reach denouement, and that isn’t necessarily a failing, though it isn’t satisfying in the way that a good novel should be. We get the sense that Albie’s progress is besides the point, as he discovers young Archibald (Archie) Jackson, a soon to be cricketing legend who steals the show from Albie and turns the novel around, away from the encroaching memories of a war already over, towards the beauty of cricket.

it is the nature of the shot itself
all poised and reflex, a tall man on his toes
and a shadow there no-one noticed before
ready with his soft, cool hands (72, “The Tail”)

Archie was selected to play for New South Wales at 17, but he died of Tuberculosis at only 23 in 1933. Lowe follows his growth, partly through the eyes of Albie and partly through the adoration of his sister Elizabeth, a young woman that Albie loves. The novel is shot through with nostalgia, loss, hunger, and a rich sense of setting – the streets of Sydney in the late 20s, or the excitement of Cricket in the Bradman years. There’s a freshness to this form of novel, and Lowe handles it well, but I still feel like I’ve been left with a snapshot rather than a story. Nevertheless, as a portrait of both a post-WWI veteran, an image of cricket at its most exciting period in Australia, and a portrayal of Sydney in the 20s, this is a lovely, evocative book, full of rich imagery and sensual moments. As a fully fledged novel which takes the reader on a journey, I’m less certain.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.