Fiction - paperback; Scribe; 342 pages; 2009.
Cradle Mountain National Park in Tasmania is the main setting of Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath. It's a truly beautiful place, one that I was lucky enough to visit for a couple of days in 2004 as part of a self-drive tour around the state. The park sticks in my memory because the landscape was so beautiful and varied — heathland, grassland, forests, fern gulleys and mist-covered mountains — and quite unlike anything seen on the mainland.
The state itself has often been a conservation battleground. The most famous battle was the Franklin River Blockade of 1982/83, in which a group of non-violent protesters occupied a proposed dam site in an area that had recently been added to the World Heritage list. That blockade turned into an election issue and gained international attention when botanist David Bellamy (remember him?) was arrested.
That particular protest is not the focus of Cate Kennedy's extraordinarily good novel, but two of her main characters — the New Age guru Sandy and her estranged and well-travelled husband Rich — were environmental activists who met on the blockade. Now, 25 years down the line, both have compromised their green ideals and are living fairly normal middle-class lives.
Their "greenie" pasts come back to haunt them when Rich hits upon the idea of taking their 15-year-old daughter, Sophie, on a trek to the Tasmanian wilderness. The trek is on the overland track in Cradle Mountain, a route that is far from quiet and relaxed, because of its popularity with hikers from across the world. But Rich is more interested in getting to know his daughter — he ran out on the family when Sophie was just a baby — and to take photographs that he can sell on at a later date.
Sandy is not so keen on the trip — it's the first time she's let Sophie stay with her father since he left — but the reader soon learns that this is borne out of the fear of being unable to cope without her daughter rather than wanting to protect Sophie from harm.
What emerges is a richly-layered novel, told in the third person, that follows Rich's adventure across the Tasmanian wilderness interleaved with Sandy's narrative as she deals with life on her own for the first time.
Brilliantly realised characters
They are brilliantly realised characters, full of insecurities and paranoia and a desperate need to be wanted and loved. They might be middle-aged but neither has truly grown up: Rich has never taken responsibility for his actions, Sandy is too ditsy and disorganised to do much with her life except sell outdated jewellery at local craft markets. But both are still living off the glory of having been arrested during the blockade in 1983.
The standout character, however, is Sophie, a teenager, who, in many ways, is more mature than Rich and Sandy. And yet she has deep-seated psychological problems — she is a closet anorexic intent on exercising herself into thinness — which neither of her parents pick up on. It's rather telling that during her exhausting trek with Rich, in which she eats barely a thing, it is not Rich that notices her lack of appetite but two other hikers they befriend along the way.
And while the book deals with some big themes — what it is to grow old and compromise your values, how we raise our children, the importance of protecting the wilderness and how we relate to nature — it's a genuinely warm and witty read.
Rich's inflated ego
I particularly loved seeing the air come out of Rich's inflated ego. His thinly veiled contempt for modern eco-tourism and the hikers he meets along the way begins to crumble when the full impact of having to slog seven hours a day in mud and rain — with a serious blister on his foot — begins to take its toll.
You could save yourself the money, thought Rich bitterly, and stick a Farbuster Pro exercise treadmill into a shower, turn the cold water tap on, walk underneath it all day with twenty kilos of weights strapped to your back, and get just the same effect.
And Sandy, with her spirit guides, "retreats" and craft markets, who is constantly striving to lead an ethical life that others poke fun at, including her daughter, isn't much better.
Trying to do the right thing. To not give in to it all, and switch off your conscience. She knew it drove Sophie crazy, sometimes, but then Sophie was a teenager and teenagers thought you were oppressing them if you made them get out of bed in the morning. 'Who's going to notice?' she would say, exasperated, as Sandy refused to drink orange juice that contained pulp from imported oranges. 'What do you think's going to happen — the fruit juice police are going to storm in here and arrest you?' And Sandy would laugh, but a little uneasily, truth be known, because Sophie was right — everyone was kind of policing each other, everyone was under surveillance.
Kennedy puts you in the heads of these characters and shows you their good points and their bad. But by showing the wider context of their lives — where they fit in today's society as opposed to the role they played in the past — she offers up a domestic family drama on a grander scale. Critically acclaimed American writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and TC Boyle, often came to mind as I read this book; I'd argue that Kennedy is pretty much in the same league.
The World Beneath is currently available as a large format paperback in the UK; a smaller format will be published by Atlantic Books in May.