Review by Amanda Hickey
The Albury family of Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay are about money and social standing, and although they appear prickly and self-absorbed, it is the father’s eightieth birthday celebration, so they are coming together in their grand harbourside house, determined to make it a good show.
The Beach Volcano by Goulburn author Nigel Featherstone is his third and final novella in a series that began three years ago. In this volume, the prodigal son, Canning, returns to the Albury fold after an absence of 25 years spent developing a successful career as rock musician Mick Dark (think Nick Cave).
He is the type to upset any apple cart—in his dress, in his music and most definitely within his family dynamics. On returning to his childhood home he feels like ‘a tourist who had stumbled on a house-museum open twenty-four seven’.
Along with Vernon, the pompous father, there’s a brittle, decaying mother, two sisters bent on protecting the status quo, a true friend who loves chooks and a plain-speaking teenage boy who strikes at the heart of the matter.
Most of us have mixed feelings about our siblings or parents and it is this terrain that Featherstone first covers before teasing out, with rumours and poignant flash-backs, a thriller-like drama.
Mick / Canning lives in Tasmania and remembers what growing up in the family was really like: the disconnect between them was palpable, ‘as if the five of us just found ourselves occupying the place like squatters’. On arrival he is greeted with good-humoured barbs: ‘so they let you off the island’; or are they put-downs?
Featherstone skilfully weaves Australia’s class-driven colonial past into the strands of this modern family—these pillars of the establishment who now like to sit around discussing parochial NSW politics and, for Canning, ‘making accusations about people I didn’t know and didn’t care about’.
What Canning does care about is the truth. He’s lived long enough as an artist on his own terms to know that truth, even painful truth, is the core component of an authentic moral fibre. And he arrives carrying information that he knows will blow the family apart.
The underlying question of this unforgettable novella is, perhaps in biblical terms, that the sins of the father will be visited on the sons—and so this son is determined to put the record straight. However, even though Canning likes sitting in churches to ‘stare at the stained-glass windows and try to feel what faith might be like’, his quest is not driven by any religious conviction.
Sensing his simmering moral outrage, family members determinedly try to throw him off course. The mother confronts him, voicing her disgust at his work and throwing down her own gauntlet: ‘I will not be surrounded by fake people’.
The irony is not lost on us as we watch them eat food served from platters with ‘domed lids’. Not unlike John Cheever before him, through his likable protagonist, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core.
The family acknowledges his success only because it has recently crept into films. ‘Does it pay well?’ he is asked. (A question, no doubt, the author has also heard many times.) Featherstone’s writing is etched with dry humour and there are double meanings everywhere: ‘Plus I never wanted his money, or to be frank, his interest’—so Canning sums up his failed relationship with his father. Yet nothing is static as they circle around each other exploring, little by little, the ties that bind them.
The centre-piece scene is the building of a beach volcano, which is, for Canning, a happy memory of his father: ‘I could see the boy he once had been’. It’s a sentimental recollection of Canning’s and he can’t resist showing his newly acquainted nephew how a beach volcano is made. But on this occasion the beachside ritual goes painfully awry, a striking metaphor for the oppressive secrets carried by his parents.
Like watching an Ingmar Bergman film, we find there are tensions within the relationships that are so taut, we become increasingly uneasy about what lies ahead as we wait for the next confrontation in the family drama.
The unsolved Sydney mystery of the missing boy that once inspired Canning to write a hit song titled ‘The Water Boy Never Dies’, pays homage to other Sydney tragedies in and around its harbours. Most of us would have forgotten the story of Graeme Thorne, a school boy who was kidnapped and murdered (his body left in a grotto near the Spit) after his parents won the first Opera House lottery. Yet social realist artists like Nigel Thomson explored the underbelly of Sydney’s genteel class in the same way Mick Dark / Canning Albury has done in his songs, or as Nigel Featherstone is doing in this novella.
With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven through The Beach Volcano. Canning fondly remembers swimming naked at night. ‘I’d look along my body. How pale it seemed in the harbour water, as white as a cuttlefish.’
Whatever misgivings he may have about Vernon, he also acknowledges it is he who gave him his love of both water and music. And music is more than just a job or even a passion: ‘these things are a part of the body, not abstract notions, not extensions, but the centre of self’. Echoing the hero’s thoughts, in its own narrative structure, The Beach Volcano too, rises and falls to a compelling beat.
Canning eventually wonders whether, in building a fan base of hundreds and thousands that adore him, perhaps all that matters is ‘that just one heart is enough’. Enduring literary fiction is driven by universal insights into the human condition and Featherstone beautifully reveals this one.
For Canning, the family’s truth, even if it’s ‘a disturbance’, must eventually come out. He’s confident that if he takes things apart, the truth will ‘put them back together in a different and better shape’. The reader is not so convinced. The Albury family is so misshapen we cannot help feeling that Canning is a little naïve and we wait with bated breath until the end.
THE BEACH VOLCANO
Blemish Books, 2014.
140 pp; $24.95.
For a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions of Featherstone’s novellas. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6; for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L; and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.