“I want to leave behind a body of work where someone can look at it and say ‘that changed my life’.” – Robin Bower
When we read novels, we often argue over what makes them good. Harold Bloom’s famous list of the Western Literary Canon included no female authors and he copped a lot of flak for it.
But novels are, generally speaking, about life changing experiences for the characters. And you can’t deny that that is what happens to Eve Robinson in Beyond Home.
Eve is neither old nor young but female and middle-of-the-road-aged and a horticulturist by profession whose life is sort of turned 90 degrees and set on its side once her father dies. Her seemingly boring father holds a diary written in a foreign language and a letter she can’t make out and all she knows is that he had a past in Burma.
Having nothing else to go on and now keen to find out what sort of past he left behind him, she ventures forth to Burma. What ensues is an adventure in the hierarchies of domestic households, hot, tropical jungles with guerrilla forces and the political and social ramifications of growing a cash crop that just so happens to be the opium poppy. And there is love too of all sorts, for country, for lover, for parent, for child, for sibling, for friend and comrade in amidst the undergrowth, the soft earth, the tall trees and their vines and a lot of pesky, venomous snakes.
I see a lot of this sort of fiction come out from Australian female writers with this emphasis on secrets and family relationships. Maybe we love mysteries. The Happiness Jar springs to mind as one example. But what Robin does is take that idea and then use it to take the reader somewhere they have not been before and to talk about things we readers would usually shun away from reading about if presented to us in non-fiction form.
Which brings me to this point: novels are sometimes useful for bringing to our attention or educating us on things that we would not normally spend time and energy trying to be informed about. In this case it is Burma and the upheaval in politics and the consequences for the country and its people of the fighting and the opium trade. The latter of which it casts its effect of languor over the entire story as you read it, even the adrenalin rushed opening chapter. It only serves to make it easier to take in what you are being told.
Robin doesn’t shy away from the issues but she does from heavily disengaging the reader and to that effect, for all the description of Burmese life and culture that there is in the story, you don’t feel totally lost at sea amongst traditions and language that is alien to a non-Asian, non- Burmese, or similar culture acquainted reader. And that is a good thing, that it remains accessible to all for the whole point of a good novel with an idea worth spreading is that it catches as large and as varied an audience as possible in its net.
Could you become one of the fish entrapped? Have a read of Beyond Home and see for yourself. The book was self published and is available on Amazon.
If you have read it, no doubt you have questions. In the inaugural series of the Australian Women Writers web series In Conversation With, I asked them for you. You can watch the funny and informal chat that Robin and I had below. The transcript and other information are available here.
To listen to the MP3/podcast version of the interview, see the handy dandy player below.