Bloodlines is very special to me for both professional and personal reasons. Professionally speaking, I was one of three judges, along with Richard Rossiter and Delys Bird, to shortlist Nicole’s novel for the prestigious T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2014. Back then the novel was called All That Came Before, but irrespective of the title, we three judges could see that this was a work of great intelligence and heart. And then last year, when Margaret River Press accepted the novel for publication, the Director, Caroline Wood, asked me to edit the manuscript. So it’s been, as the cliché has it, a very rewarding journey to take with Nicole on her path to publication. In personal terms, I’ve been deeply touched by Nicole’s connection to my brother Tibor, who died six years ago, and who was Nicole’s primary school teacher for two years in a row in a small country town. At the beginning of our working relationship, Nicole told me that it was my brother’s support, enthusiasm and dedication which inspired her to become a teacher herself, to commit to one of society’s most important and frequently undervalued professions. Understandably then, the teaching scenes in Bloodlines – those lively and authentic moments about the pleasures and challenges of the work – have a particular and heartfelt resonance for me.
And so, to Bloodlines as a whole. What a remarkable novel it is. Remarkable, because it takes considerable risks, both in terms of its subject matter and in its manner of writing. I don’t mean by that it’s a difficult read, not at all; it’s an utterly engaging and absorbing narrative. So what do I mean by risky? It’s partly because of the novel’s subject-matter. Bloodlines grapples with one of life’s most difficult experiences: the loss of someone we love. In the hands of a lesser writer, the expression of such loss can become clichéd, sentimental or histrionic. But Nicole has given us a language which honours that anguishing experience; a language which reveals, with honesty and integrity, both the irreparable nature of such loss and the struggle over time to rescue something from the wreckage.
Bloodlines is also risky because it dares to write about sex. Sex is after all one of life’s most important, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes disappointing and occasionally downright ludicrous experiences. I’m sure we’ve all read so-called “sex scenes” in novels that are either sleazily voyeuristic, brutally pornographic or inadvertently comic. But Nicole’s novel depicts the experience of sex, both passionate and tender, in ways that feel right and true. Although if I might add an editorial note here: there were some moments when I had to advise Nicole to exercise a little more restraint, to tone down the moaning and groaning.
Another risky element in Bloodlines is the creation of certain kinds of characters; they are types, of course – novels always deal with types – but Nicole never lets them become stereotypes. Take, for example, the central character of Clem. He’s that familiar Aussie figure of the emotionally inexpressive bloke, the unsophisticated, clumsy shearer who’s shy with women. But he’s also a man who struggles mightily to be a good father, who wants to help his daughter Beth find her own way, while also needing her to assuage his intense loneliness. Or take another character, Val, the white expatriate teacher in Papua New Guinea. At one level Val is simply, and often hilariously, the gin-guzzling, hard-bitten spinster, but as with Clem, she is endowed with emotional and psychological complexity; we come to know her as a woman who has sacrificed her own emotional needs not from some empty Christian sense of duty but because she has the gift of an empathetic imagination.
Perhaps riskiest of all are the portraits of the indigenous Papua New Guineans like Ruth, Lena and Delores, who could have been reduced to one of two offensive western stereotypes: either infantalised as simple-minded natives or exoticised as the alien “other.” But Bloodlines gives us fully human and dignified portraits of indigenous characters, indeed of their culture as a whole. Nicole negotiates that highly problematic issue of seeing a different culture through Western eyes with great ethical circumspection. Her novel doesn’t shy away from endemic domestic violence and superstition, but nor does it idealize PNG as a tropical paradise, a playground for western indulgence. The human landscape of PNG is thus both dark and full of laughter, fractured and communal, bound by tradition but also open to the new. And that’s a remarkable achievement.
The novel also takes risks in the way it’s written. Its unconventional structure, which constantly shifts between past and present, might initially be a challenge for the reader. But as we read we come to understand the significance of that structure: how it enacts the persistence of the past in the present; the past as a lived experience in the minds and bodies of the characters, which either damages or heals them, and which they must ultimately confront.
Another risky strategy is the use of five different perspectives. The narrative shifts between the perspectives of Clem, Clem’s wife Rose, their daughter Beth, Val the expat and a man named Pirate. Yes, there’s a pirate in the novel, but he’s not what you might expect, and there’s not a parrot in sight. Using shifting and multiple perspectives always runs the risk of dissipating the narrative momentum, but its skillful use in Bloodlines not only reveals vividly contrasting ways of seeing the world but also offers subtle links between characters. One of the most poignant examples for me is the implied link between Beth and her mother Rose. Beth never gets to know her mother, but the parallels between them – their desire to travel, their tendency to stubbornness, their longing for intimacy – suggest that Rose lives on in her daughter. That there are bloodlines which outlive the mortal human body.
Finally, the novel’s risk-taking is evident in its construction of two very different physical locations: the Western Australian wheatbelt and a Papua New Guinean island. Place in Bloodlines never descends into mere scene-setting; it is at once richly sensorial and subtly symbolic, encouraging us to reflect on the significance of place. For at the heart of this novel – emotionally, existentially, politically – are those crucial questions about belonging: what might it mean to make a home? And what might we owe to those who dwell in it?
So what we have here, then, is a novel to greatly admire and love. And I don’t use the word “love” lightly, because Bloodlines is the kind of fiction that readers will take into their hearts. It’s a compassionate, intelligent novel that understands the power of language to unsettle, confront and amuse us, and to move us deeply. Which does what the most memorable novels often do: it tries to make sense of this unruly, vexing thing called life, and in so doing, to help us know we are not alone.
Nicole’s first review – a wonderful four-star review in the influential Books and Publishers – described Bloodlines as “marking the emergence of a sincere and refreshing new voice in the Australian literary world.” Which means, of course, that we are now eagerly awaiting Nicole’s second novel. No pressure, Nicole. (Analogy of just having given birth, and being asked when you’re going to have your second child.)
I commend this beautiful first novel to you. Buy several copies for your family and friends. It gives me great pleasure to officially launch Bloodlines.
Bloodlines is now available for purchase from Margaret River Press, and in all good bookstores.