Compelling darkness

September 5, 2003

A L McCann, The White Body of Evening, Sydney: HarperCollins, 2002.

Reviewed by Vincent Ramos

thewhitebodyofeveningThe macabre holds a perverse attraction – and in fiction, that which is dark, unknowable, undoable, becomes not merely possible, but palpably achievable.

The White Body of Evening, the debut novel by Melbourne academic Andrew McCann, opens with Albert and Anna Walters stumbling through a perfunctory shotgun wedding in the spring of 1891. The contrast is immediate. Albert is deeply troubled, and inclined towards taboo thoughts and the more sordid diversions available in the arcades and laneways of Melbourne. Anna, the reserved Barossa German who dreams of seeing the European countryside that her parents called home.

Already the juxtaposition of respectability and what lies beneath it are drawn. This is not the Melbourne we know today – shiny, aspirational, humdrum. McCann breaks the recognisable skin of propriety with a passion and perversity that makes Melbourne into a grotesque, magnificent Gotham.

Based in South Melbourne, where the upscale St Vincent Place, in which the mysterious Dr Winton resides, is literally around the corner from the poky squalor of the Brooke Street where Anna and Albert have a cottage, The White Body of Evening is also well-acquainted with the seedy, now-vanished arcades of Bourke Street. This is a Melbourne still only edging towards Federation, steeped in Victorian morality, but where the menace of violence hangs in the air and a mob will gather at a moment’s notice to lynch a man on the mere suspicion of guilt.

Albert, increasingly erratic and paranoid, longing to escape the ‘emasculating’ tedium of work and domesticity, is receiving the attention of Dr Winton – who himself carries the baggage of a shadowy past, a man whose rich cologne conceals a ‘hot, musky odour’, something ugly and bestial. The novel’s atmosphere intensifies by the page, painting a dark, dysfunctional Melbourne through Albert Walters’ dark, dysfunctional family.

By the eve of Federation, the Walters’ son Paul is eight, and soon to be introduced to the freak shows, brothels and ‘anatomical curiosities’ that obsess his father. Albert’s intention, on their saunter through the Eastern Arcade, is to discourage Paul, but the bent towards the perverse, it seems, is hereditary. Here, the reader is reminded that these ‘moist, fungal depths of the city’ were only streets away from the ‘respectable citizens strolling down the posh end of Collins Street’.

Albert and Anna also have a daughter, the preternatural Ondine – with whom twelve-year-old neighbour Hamish McDermott, and Paul himself, are already besotted, the first of a string of captives to her Estella-like detachedness.

McCann nimbly handles the novel’s various impending crises, allowing them to be activated slowly and subtly, until their force finally disturbs the hard-fought equilibrium for which each character has striven.

Secrets – buried under floorboards, dumped into the Yarra, hidden in crevices in the most obscure parts of the city or the mind – refuse, of course, to stay that way. Each rises inexorably to the surface, as do the humiliations, the betrayals, the abandonments.

McCann’s facility is strengthened by intelligent historical insight and unobtrusive prose. The novel is stylised, not at the level of words and sentences, but paragraphs and chapters. It is an effective technique.

By now, a persistent melancholy has been established in the novel’s Melbourne – not quite Grand Guignol, but with a sharp handle on the psychology of horror – but where it is lifted, foreboding transforms into brash grisliness, an atmosphere of bulging, malevolent eyes and fiendish cackling.

White Body’s central characters (Paul, Ondine, Anna, Winton, Melbourne – even Albert) are each angling always at a brighter future – casting themselves towards the light of aspiration with only the most fleeting of glances-back – but every bright outcome harbours shadows and upsets.

The novel’s ultimate focus is Paul’s artistic development, the troughs and crests of his career, making the book in essence a Künstlerroman. With his inherited predilections, the young man eschews the conservative ideals of the Gallery School – ‘the horror of the everyday’ – for the perverse and the scandalous, eventually leaving Melbourne for Europe – the Old World for which his mother used to pine, where sophistication, culture and history might be found. Against the manners and taste of Europe, Australia becomes the uncouth, uncomplicated counterpoint – highlighted by the rivalry between would-be sophisticate Paul and grazier’s son Ralph Matthews, Ondine’s love-interest.

McCann has situated this aspect of White Body in the debate on Australia’s identity. Various other contrasts play into this notion – city-bound Ondine and her ambivalent love for the grazier’s son, the impoverished, besotted Hamish and the ultimately well-off Walters family, the hype of Federation against the reality of a nation still labouring under a morality and way of life inherited from England.

Overall, McCann’s storytelling is kinetic and suspenseful, well-plotted while maintaining a sophisticated literary texture. In the Europe segue, however, there are narrative digressions that cause the story to lose pace and focus. During Paul’s otherwise-effective Vienna sojourn, he spends what the reader realises is an entire chapter fretting over his artistic credentials and resulting inaction. It is a small blip on McCann’s record – the reader will forgive indulgence.

The complexities of the novel are notable for a debut. White Body blends the logic of history with the sinuous and ethereal, while balancing a considerable ensemble of characters.

Here is a novel that spins on the great axes of love, lust and jealousy, of ambition, betrayal and loss, while also exhibiting an array of duty, frailty, gentility and perversity. It evokes a knowledge of history, art and medicine, as well as prostitution, freak-shows and cabinets of curiosity, that reveal a solid intellectual poise.

Into the atmosphere of Melbourne McCann has released an all-shrouding menace, one that manifests in angry mobs and shadowy figures from ‘the queer end of Bourke Street’, although ultimately the anarchy that had always threatened to overrun the lives of White Body’s protagonists takes the form of war. In an ironic twist, it is a war that is fought half a world away – in the Old World – that sees Paul and Ondine’s lives upended.

The White Body of Evening is a smartly-executed socio-psychological observation of fin-de-siècle Melbourne and its middle-class. And while the alternate lustre and pungency of the book’s historical detail may show McCann to be a fine historian, without doubt the power of the book lies in its sensitivity to the complexities of human relations and the potency of desire.

In the crossed destinies of his characters – their negotiations through life, the betrayals, the pay-offs – McCann has found the stuff of novels. Compelling.

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