Philomena Van Rijswijk’s The World as a Clockface

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The World as a Clockface
Philomena van Rijswijk
Penguin, 405pp, A$19.95

Things just aren’t right in the world. The people of Whalers Gate are trying to stop time, Mrs Chomsky has gone to sail around the antarctic circle with a complete stranger, Nine Toes’; three ill children are waiting for him in their Amazonian tree house, the desert is closing in on the people of Incognita, there are dead birds all over the ground, and the women are turning into skeletons, or turning to stone. Welcome to the world of magic realism, where anything is possible. Time is distorted, and the unreal seems commonplace, as the characters battle their natural adversaries without the usual constraints of logicality. Following in the footsteps of the early Carey, Borges, Marquez, de Bernieres, and Fowles, Van Rijswijk uses her knowledge of the sea, and her antipodean base of Tasmania, to create a unique voice, taking the reader on a descriptive journey from the mythical antipodean island state of Esmania, past a small island to the east called Aotearoa, Antartica, Tierra del Feugo, Paraguay, the Cape of Africa, and back to the Antipodean mainland Incognita. This often convoluted tale is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes bizarre, but always compelling. The World as A Clock Face is Van Rijswijk’s second novel, starting its life as a series of short stories, a structure which is still apparent, as the stories weave through the extraordinary cast of characters, forming an eternal life of their own, moving amongst the strange terrain, in and out of the pursed lips, the hot jungle nights and cold Antarctic days.

There are few constants in this novel, but the recently thawed Lavinia Chomsky, and her three children, Snowy, Albion, Blanche, along with the grey-whiskered old salt Captain Schuyler, Sister Mary Sacrum – also known as Missy Scarem Scarem, the beautiful Aggie Winterbottom and her daughter Darkie Sweet, the Quinns, also known as The Merry Skylarkers, and Big Jim Narracoopa seem to reappear most often, moving through the changing terrain. The novel is peopled with imaginatively named eccentrics, and although not all of the characters take on the depth of Mrs Chomsky, the Thoreaus, the other sisters, Stylus and Septum, Fetchit Wildermann, Porgy Piggins, the Indian prince and his musical entourage, the Grinsards, Dona Immaculata, Concepcion, Don Miguelo de la Corpus, Annunciata, Walter Stalzkin, Vwaselest, Epifyta, Manenko, Tweelingzuster and Terranara, Liddle Puddin, and the Sargassum children, are among many of the people who move in and out of the novel, teasing us with their fascinating tales and then slipping away to make room for the next one. Some of the stories end suddenly, and we never find out what happens with the people we have lived with for 20 or so pages; Walter Stalzkin’s search for the Laws of Nature, Nine Toes’ family as they partake of their dead, Vwaselest, Epifyta, the Indian prince, all drawing us in and then leaving us, such is life in this mystical part of the world. The dreams of these characters, along with their mythologies, stories and the everyday detail which makes up their lives form the backdrop for the novel, fusing the everyday with the fantastic, the nightmarish with the waking, and blurring the distinctions between seriousness and triviality, tragedy and comedy, the horrific with the ludicrous.

There are a number of themes pulling the chaos together, particularly ice, time, air, water, and the feminine versus masculine. The ice appears throughout the novel, looming large, as Antarctica, the centre of Van Rijswick’s map. The unmoving point of the South Pole around which the stories and life move, “fly or fishtail past on their long long journey around the world” (404). Point zero. There is the king of Iceland, the ship which drives the novel forward, on which the storytelling takes place, where the characters meet between ports, magical islands, circling the antarctic seas.

There are icebergs, the white mountain which Serafina dreams of, the ice floes of the antarctic seas, the blue ice water of the polar melt, which stops rust, mould and rot. There is the ice which provides its own eerie light, the light that is “so strange, thicker than darkness”, that blue glow called the “Light of Civilisation”, and distorts reality, creating phantoms and demons. Most importantly, there is the ice we carry around inside of us. The ice of an unlived life. There is Livinia Chomsky’s icy interior, “cold as white marble”, as she lies next to her husband. There is the white continent inside Violet Offenbach, as the “grains of snow like powdered glass that fell slowly, constantly, all day and all night, leaving a sandy covering of ice that was glassy and hard” (158), freezing herself after losing her Indian drummer. And, there is the iciness of stone, the living death which becomes a real death of Aloyshus, Clemence’s mother, who wakes each morning with icicles hanging from her nose and eyelids, and who wills her molecules to freeze, her hair becoming the fibres of blue asbestos.

The inner ice is connected to time “a frozen river that began somewhere outside” and flowed inward; a black river with the mute stubbornness of ice, pushing its way between the frozen sheets of her inner continent, shifting the layers, flowing inexorably under its own great weight”. The people of Whaler’s Gate try to stop time, thinking that perhaps this might trick the weather into returning to its normal rain patterns. They hold a dull poetry recital, forbid eating between meals, avoid sleeping, music, dancing and singing in an effort to make time slow down, but as Sister Mary Septum states, time isn’t like that: “She’d been asleep. Yes! – That was when she realised that her whole life she’d been trying to stop time, but had only managed to stop herself. no matter how much you manage to stop yourself, time will never put itself out to stop for you.” Time is an illusion. The characters grow old, and die and appear again in the stories, their lives spiraling in a distortion of linearity. The ship moves forward, the children tell their stories to their children, and time marches on, an immutable law of nature.

The laws of nature are a masculine principle in this book, but the feminine is a strong one. The men try to stop time, but the women know that the children need feeding, that crops need sowing. “Wasn’t a woman born with time crammed into her very bones like marrow” (151). They have an inner knowledge. There are stories of atrocities to women, Gabriel’s “I will teach you what you are”, or Manenko’s many stories of how women were hurt. The women dream the great dreams, linked to the earth: (110) “A woman’s most wayward dreams, you see, are inseparable from the tides, great and small; from the merciless deluges of spring; from the air that spins lazily away to the stars; from the tannin-stained swelling of rivers; and from the long arid times when all things wither into a tissue of opalescence and then turn to dust. Mrs Chomsky talks to the children about the fluid medium in which we live, the air, the water”. There is always the bigger picture, reminding us of the animals we are, dwelling on the bottom of our earth, “just as the seas has bottom-dwelling creatures”. The women can change, metamorphosis into stone, into bird, into missionary, mother, cold and hot. While the masculine seeks to contain the environment, to leave their flags in the land, to take possession or control, sometimes with good effect, as the prophet Willi Willi does, the women knows of the inevitability of time: “Annunciata wondered how Senor Stalzkin could think that the Laws of Nature might be housed somewhere in such a place – a rioting jungle hovering overa white desert and a bleeding dead river” (308).

Despite the death, the aching, the tragedy, the novel is filled with humour. There are little asides, quips about the Esmanians: “Applechewers, othersiders”, or the blackly humorous interchange between Violet’s parents as they talk about the baby Violet must be incubating inside her: “It might have webbed feet – with the tongue of a lizard – scales on its back – bring a curse on our family for seven generations- stink of ghee and fenugreek” interspersed with peeling potatoes, slicing beans and stirring custard and mowing the lawn. There is the native’s vision of Stalzkin, Falisi-zm “man of the large penis”, as he thrusts his arrow into the Island of the Gods, marking it as his own. There are the names of the missionaries: Kingdom Cummings Poe-Bird, Olly Ghoost, Willby Dunne, General Sturmund Drang, or the natives response to Mary Sacrum’s explanations of how the Lord loves all men: “So, we’ve had such men – but they were not allowed to marry, They were chosen to be priests.”(177)

Despite the gorgeous use of language and the originality of this novel, there are also a few minor problems. The metaphors are constant, coming thick and fast, and while they are always original, and good, piled on top of one another they can be hard to take, their heaviness diluting each other. In the space of a single paragraph, the sun comes to the door of the tent like “a mother in law snooping under things”; the leaves of the trees in the garden are “like the curved wings of green parrots fleshed out with light”; and an orange flower is “like a burning torch”. The imagery is lush, with rich descriptions of the flora and fauna of Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, South America and Africa, and it just isn’t necessary to have so much additional metaphor. Also there are perhaps too many stories. It is difficult to keep track of the many threads woven into the tale and at times threatens to turn the whole novel into chaos. Characters come and go, and occasionally details will be left out, such as the fate of Violet’s first Indian baby, minor characters with fantastic names coming and going with such pace that it is easy to forget who is who. However, despite these faults, the novel is still a good one, filled with fascinating stories, interesting words and a style which is quite original. The perspective is a challenging one and forces the reader to look differently at time, space, history, and most of all, the map, oriented as it is on the southern pole, moving around in a clockwise motion. Spiraling inwards. Towards zero.