Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Pages

The Pages by Murray Bail
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Nov 17, 09

bookshelves: fiction, 2009
Read in November, 2009

Murray Bail's 1998 book, Eucalyptus, is one of my most beloved books. It resonates so strongly with me that I'm always disappointed when other readers don't like it like I do - even though I can understand it, especially if they're not Australian and have never been there. It's a mix of Bail's distinctive writing style and the story itself: it either works for you or it doesn't.

The same is very much true of The Pages, a simple, short novel about two women, psychologists from Sydney, who travel seven hours to a sheep station in rural New South Wales to read a possible philosophic work written by a farmer's son, Wesley Antill, now dead. It was in his will that someone read and evaluate his work with the possibility of publishing it, and Erica is sent by the university to do just that. She takes her friend Sophie with her, who after yet another failed affair with a married man needs a break. Wesley's younger brother and sister, Roger and Lindsey, run the sheep station and are just as curious about Wesley's work. Interwoven with this present-day story is the story of Wesley, leaving home first to live in Sydney and then to travel around Europe.

Perhaps because it's a simpler, more straight-forward story, perhaps because it's quiet and uneventful, but it was definitely not the masterpiece Eucalyptus is. It still has Bail's beautiful, introspective prose - a style I simply do not have the words for, and in my failure I can only let Bail speak for himself:
"Erica who was holding onto the door - just his thumb and forefingeer keeping them on track - hand closest often changing down to first - saw how his way of conversing, which had plenty more stops and starts and false trails than actual words, followed the contours of the meandering landscape. Having to negotiate the unevenness on a daily basis had infected his speech. And when coming out with a sentence of more than three words he closed his eyes, the eyelids fluttering slightly as he spoke." (p.87)

"On the train to Bath, a young Frenchman with a violin case on his knees spoke of the conversion of nature into art. Art, being human, is imperfect - hence, its power, smiled the Frenchman. Antill enjoyed the conversation, and thought of seeing more of him, perhaps becoming friends, but when it came to it he couldn't find his address. Women were like small towns: to come upon them, and be surrounded by their neatness, but without the help of directions, before reaching unexpected dead ends; and begin all over again, elsewhere." (p.123)

"It was time for Erica to return to the shed, to submerge herself in the pages. But it was comfortable on the veranda, in the cane chairs with cushions, looking out past the sheds to the brown-purple horizon, tall spreading gum on the left. Lindsey was easy company. The way she allowed, and even encouraged gaps, imitated the landscape." (p.170)

It's Bail's ability to anthropomorphise the land, or to do the opposite - to render humans and their ways into a kind of landscape, to naturalise them - that I love. However, I felt that his style was limited here, that it wasn't quite appropriate to the story, or didn't go far enough. It certainly doesn't have the same magic as in Eucalyptus - I struggled to find quote-worthy passages and I'm not sure I picked appropriate ones. Bail writes like he truly understands that writing is an artform - and he's still experimenting. It may be a weaker story, and his prose might not be as satisfying as it was in his first book, but it still picks me up and carries me off as if on the wind, all lightness and astute glimpses into people's hearts.

That's the magic of Bail's prose, to enable me to see things in a way I'd never seen them before. It's got nothing to do with adjectives, not really. It's more of an approach, and a perspective. It comes across as a "tell" rather than "show" style because it's very narrative, but actually when you stop to think about it you'll realise how much he's not saying, but subtly revealing, or leaving open to interpretation. Yet, even just looking at these quotes here, I found some of the grammar and structure awkward, and itch to readjust it.

The actual story didn't interest me as much, though I did like it. I liked Erica's story better than Wesley's - Wesley wasn't a convincing character, but an inconclusive one. Not as believable, despite being familiar. He read too fictional, and I felt nothing for him except, I admit, a bit of superiority.

Despite my complaints, I still really liked it, mostly because of how Bail can transport me home, to the country I love best and miss with all my heart and which, I feel, Bail always knows how to bring alive for me - like he's the only one who understands and sees the country the same way I do. I can lose myself in his words. His style isn't for everyone, that I can understand, and this isn't the better book to start with. He has three other novels and a collection of short stories, but I can only speak for Eucalyptus, which makes my veins hum.
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