A review of Lemniscate by Gaynor McGrath

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

by Gaynor McGrath
Transit Lounge Publishing
409 pp, $29.95 AU Trade paperback, ISBN 9780980461633, November 2008

Verisimilitude is one thing, but Gaynor McGrath’s novel Lemniscate reads so much like a memoir, that it’s hard to believe it didn’t all happen verbatim. Elsie is a young Australian traveler, exploring a world in a way which was popular in the 1970s, and is not really possible anymore. Elsie is backpacking throughout the Middle East and Asia, searching for herself. It’s a road trip full of the kind of interesting elements you could never get with money and a tour guide. Told in first person present tense, the story unfolds slowly as Elsie works her way through the inner and outer journey that the title calls attention to. It’s not just any lemniscate, but the Lemniscate of Gerono: the infinity symbol which has a double point of origin and curves back on itself. It’s a good title and a good description of Elsie’s journey, which is always self-reflective.

At times, Elsie is almost too wide-eyed and open, working through her quest with a naivety that is as irritating as it is charming. As a fellow traveller, I might have looked upon her adventures like one of the Christian missionaries she meets: horrified about her drug addicted roommates, the unwashed state of everything, and the casual sleeping arrangements. The mother in me wants to shake her, as surely as her own mother would have wanted to. But I can clearly remember being similar in my youth: able to walk into seedy situations with just that combination of innocence, confidence and acceptance to stay more or less safe. Elsie stays safe too, though she comes pretty close to danger at times. She gets various bouts of stomach pains, infections and dysentery; has a range of propositions and strange romances, including a marriage proposal from an Afghani prince; and has a bus accident in Indonesia:

My hand is covered in blood; there is blood streaming down my face. No wonder the mother screamed. I climb back out of the rice paddy and stand by my soaked packin the pouring rain, holding my head as blood trickles down my arm. (166)

The reader moves along the lemniscate path with Elsie, as she tries to make sense of what she sees, and work out what it means to her own life in its broadest context. Throughout the book the writing is descriptive and interesting, full of the sights, sounds and tastes of the places she visits. The book takes the reader to places that are both exotic, and made familiar by human elements:

[Calcutta] has the most poverty, starvation, corruption, strikes, riots and disease in India: everywhere are deformed and limbless beggars, queues for overpricid rations, and thousands of unbelievably destitute refugee families living on the streets. Each night the electricity fails at some point and there is a universal sigh of disappointment, which initially seemed to me to express the Calcutta soul. But when, some time later, the lights spring back into life, they are inevitably greeted by spontaneous cheers that reveal hundreds of smiling faces. Yes, I think as I witness the same events each night: this is the spirit of Calcutta – resilient and optimistic, against overwhelming odds. (131)

Elsie is never imperialistic, and takes the people she meets and the countries she explores on their own terms. At one point she even criticises one of her traveling companions for taking too strong a line against a man who has groped her. One of her most compelling traveling companions, Kiwi, pops up again and again in a series of coincidences, and later becomes particularly important in pulling together the thread between Elsie’s travels and her life in Australia. His ravaged appearance, and ‘citizen of the world’ stance mirrors her own, and provides a neat constant where everything else is in flux and when Elsie is beginning to wonder if she fits anywhere.

Elsie’s continuing and varied romances see her engaged to a doctor, skippering a boat in Queensland, and living as a single mother in Paros, Greece. At times the story bogs with so many romances and the repetition in theme, as each romance ends with an adoration that never goes quite far enough to incite change. But Elsie’s toughness, and ability to survive a range of situations is convincing enough to keep the story moving forward. A lot of ground is covered in Lemniscate. Through the lens of Elsie’s introspection, the reader explores the 1970s backpacking scene. The novel also looks at the greed of Western life and contrasts it with the simple life that she learns to live on her travels and in Greece. Elsie’s attempts to cope with the narrow minded Christianity and expectations of her family contrast well with the cultural diversity of the countries she visits. Although Elsie’s struggles are never idealised, there is poignancy in how she manages to integrate and set up a rhythm in whatever culture she immerses herself in. This is a powerful memoir-styled fiction with a strong ring of reality. There are plenty of grubby moments and close calls, but this is ultimately a travalogue that celebrates love in all of it forms.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast www.blogtalkradio.com/compulsivereader