‘Siddon Rock’ by Glenda Guest

A real charmer of a debut novel, Siddon Rock sees the merging of a narrative of an ordinary Australian 1940s outback town, the history of settlement, indigenous dreamtime stories and more than a dash of magic realism. Glenda Guest tells her tale in a light, accessible but compelling prose that draws the reader into the lives of the characters populating the small, isolated town.

From its early beginnings where the vastness of the landscape resulted in Henry Aberline refusing to move beyond Sitdown Rock in the early 19th century to the Faustian agreement made by his eldest son, George, in the establishment of the town, Guest’s novel is a slow build. Few fireworks force the narrative yet, as Macha Connor, having returned from war, patrols Siddon Rock by night, protecting her town, so secrets past and present slowly reveal themselves – even if not always understood.

There’s no one central character other than the town itself and the spare Australian terrain. More time is spent outdoors than in – even Alistair, owner of the haberdashery store and with a fine sense of women’s French fashions, dares to walk the streets (by night) with his latest order from Europe. Yet silent Nell, with her wild dogs, sees all. But she’s almost invisble to the white Europeans – and few think to ask her when young Josis disappears. Son of Catalin Morgenstern, refugee and newest arrival to the town, the boy is not to be found following the town’s annual ball. But nor is Kelpie Crush, the new barman at the Hotel.

It’s a powerful debut and Guest captures that sense of place and time – the isolation, the traumatised return, post-war, of Macha and arrival of Catalin, both escaping the witnessed horrors of a Europe torn assunder. The present echoes the past in a town that survives, just, on the margins.

Assured, occasionally emotive, with moments of sublime imagery (Catalin’s terrifying German wartime history lesson through the use of hand shadows thrown onto the wall and the discovery of Macha’s acquired Leica camera revealing its horrific secrets are two such examples), Siddon Rock unfurls its tales: stories are like people; they change shape as they get older. Some get thinner with less detail, others pad out.

Winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first novel.

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