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Ways of Seeing: Two Novels by Gail Jones
By Jana Herlander

Photo of Gail Jones I first discovered Gail Jones's work five or six years ago when her novel Sixty Lights appeared in the catalog of a British book distributor. Not only did the book sound intriguing, but I liked the idea of reading a novel not readily available here in the US. So I sent for it. And read it. I could not have guessed the treasure within those pages; the book was indeed captivating and the prose luminous. I became a Gail Jones fan there and then.

Not all of Gail Jones's work has been denied to US readers. Two early short fiction collections, Fetish Lives and The House of Breathing, were published here over a decade ago by independent publisher George Brazillier and are still available. Her most recent title, Sorry—a brilliant book about friendship, sacrifice, and redemption— was published here in 2008 by Europa Editions. To complete my collection of her books, I have been forced to purchase from abroad, although I have been surprised by the generous gifts of dear friends in Australia. Black Mirror and Dreams of Speaking are two such surprises: splendid novels, rich in story and poetry, and are not to be missed.

One looks up from reading a Gail Jones novel and cannot fail but see the world somewhat differently, if only briefly—colors are somehow richer, shapes sharper, shadows deeper. We notice things we have not seen before—we have new ways of seeing. This is because there is a poetry, a lyricism, to her work; it's a feast for lovers of language.

Gail Jones's books demand an attentive reader, sheltered from distractions. They are not easily read on a noisy subway or in a room full of rambunctious children. They lend themselves to quiet afternoons in the park, cozy evenings curled up in bed, or sheltered corners of a library. Her sensuality of expression makes her stories breathe.

Her 2006 novel, her second, Dreams of Speaking, is a story of the power of friendship. "Friends are an intersection, a route back to the world," she tells us. Alice Black is lonely, far away from her beloved sister and Australian home. She is working in Paris on her project, "the poetics of modernity". She "wished to study the unremarked beauty of modern things, of telephones, aeroplanes, computer screens and electric lights, of television, cards and underground transportation."

Book Cover of Dreams of Speaking The book begins however with Alice at home in Australia, in her small apartment by the river. We are grounded briefy in the present before the story quickly shifts, first to the distant past, illuminating Alice's relationship with her sister Norah, and then moving forward to Paris, where Alice is in a tenuous place, lonely and trying to extricate herself from an old college boyfriend. She suffers alienation, not just by being a foreigner in another country, but emotionally, she seems untethered.

On a train she serendipitously meets 68-year-old Hiroshi Sakamoto: a survivor of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki, a lover of technology, and a poet, who is writing a biography of Alexander Graham Bell. The two become friends over relaxed dinners, city walks, and quiet conversations.

He was a man not just enraptured by telephones and Alexander Graham Bell, but given over to vigilant apprehension of the world made both destructible and glorious by its many technologies. He was respectful of vast machinery, but pondered the mechanism of a corkscrew and the intricacy of old clocks. When they sat in parks he noticed the tiniest things: the nervous vectors of a single sparrow, the mottled colours and arrangments of fallen leaves, the rainy tints in the afternoon sky. This was a capacity, he said, that had come from the practice of haiku . . .There was a fabric of knowing, he claimed, beyond vision, beyond hearing.

When they are not together, revealing their stories slowly to each other, Mr. Sakamoto sends Alice emails—short, intriguing pieces on the lives of various inventors. These emails punctuate the text regularly as we move through the book. There is not a strong linear narrative hereā€”the kind where "A" rushes on to meet "Z" —so some readers may be disappointed, and some readers may feel a bit untethered themselves at first, but one soon acclimates and becomes caught up in Alice's self-assembly and Mr. Sakamoto's tales. Eventually Mr. Sakamoto will get called back to Nagasaki, and Alice later will visit, if only to experience tragedy, before returning to Australia.

In this book Jones's lyricism has a subdued, light melancholic tone, which adds a kind of reverence to the story. Before the book ends, Jones brings us back again to the beginning, the present, where Alice, changed by this extraordinary friendship, must face unpleasant news and unexpected revelations. It is a moving story, made more meaningful by the way Jones tells it.

Book Cover of Black Mirror

In her first novel, Black Mirror (2002), Jones uses a similar lyricism. In this book, Victoria Morrell, an elderly, lonely and dramatic woman, frail and perhaps dying, awaits the arrival of Anna Griffin, an Australian who has come to London to write her biography.

How can she speak her own life when so much exists as unspeakable images, wound filmic and narcissistic in this old, old head? . . . I will sound sensible. Wise. Entirely plausible. …I will plunge her into my time rather than be made to feel old.

What Anna and the reader see when Anna greets Victoria is this "multicolored, discomposed and vigorously animated" woman. An artist, once part of the Surrealist movement, Victoria Morrell is dressed in crimson silk and a crown of long black swan feathers, with ropes of amber beads around her neck, painted lips and kohl-defined eyes. Her apartment is carnivalesque with Surrealistic decorations. "Pretty kooky," says the attending nurse. As readers we cannot help but be intrigued by the meeting of this garish woman and her biographer, who appears plain and unimpressive in her presence.

Anna eases the past from Victoria, who comes to look forward to her company and the telling. As time and stories pass, Anna observes that Victoria becomes weaker, "as if giving up her own stories depletes her of something vital."

At first Anna was tempted to give up her task. She knew in her heart the crankish ambition of biography, its overweening possessiveness, its latent conclusions, its disrespect for the irreducibly copious life. Yet she was drawn to assert— unprofessionally—her personal connection; she wanted to relocate herself as the twelve-year-old girl who had pressed a library book of reproductions [Victoria's paintings] against her chest as though claiming a lover, the girl who saw in a glorified moment the scattered atoms of her baffled life reassemble as paintings. Anna decided she would write a letter and reveal that they grew up in the same town.

We share images she will write. What could be more intimate? The desert. The mines. The search in darkness for gold. Do you realize how fantastic and implausible and ordained is our meeting? Seduction, she thinks; so much depends on the right words.

Anna is a miner's daughter born two generations after Victoria, but their visits draw out her own memories and her own story, quite different from her biographical subject's but strangely intertwined. Victoria lived a tumultuous life of privilege and loss as the mine owner's daughter—the tragic death of her mother, the absence of her father, her immensely cruel brother, her first love. She fled to Europe as soon as she found the opportunity and there, as an artist prone to imaginative fantasies, become involved with the artists and others of the Surrealist movement (most of whom come off in her telling as rather pretentious and silly). Her tale becomes one of love, art, war, loss and grief.

"The Black Mirror" is one of Victoria's works of art, and in the novel we read the catalogue description of a canvas busy with varied imagery, purporting to, as the catalogue declares, represent "the treachery of art itself". The analyses that the cataloguer has made are almost humorous, for the reader at this point understands better than the expert the true nature of this particular painting.

Captivating and powerful, intelligent and beautifully crafted, these two novels are well worth seeking out.

Gail Jones's fiction routinely takes us into Western Australia so deftly that we feel we can taste the red dust in our mouths, and, equally vividly, she takes us to other lands far away from Australia: France, England, Japan or India. But none of these landscapes is more skillfully rendered, more powerfully evoked, than that of the human heart. To this she applies reflection and refraction, movement and motion, light and shadow, the many lenses of her lyricism, so that her layered stories might move us to deeper understandings and different ways of seeing.

Gail Jones is a professor of English at the University of Western Sydney. Her new book, Five Bells, will be released in March of 2011.

Book Cover of Dreams of Speaking Book Cover of Dreams of Speaking Book Cover of Dreams of Speaking Book Cover of Dreams of Speaking Book Cover of Dreams of Speaking

Jana Herlander is a former journalist, occasional poet, and unapologetic bibliophile. She lives in the United States.