Book review: The Town

The TownThe Town by Shaun Prescott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shaun Prescott’s first novel is a strangely compelling Oz-lit amalgam of kitchen-sink drama filtered through an odd, pastoral folk weirdness lens. It’s an examination of failure: of motivation, of society, of relationships and of the laws of physics. It’s a meditation on the pull exerted by cities and their rural sisters, a contemplation of one’s ability to record loss (and the writing process), and something of a rueful love-letter to a particular part of Australia.

The book’s unidentified narrator has moved to the unnamed locale to write about disappearing towns. He works at a supermarket, flats with a dickhead and charts a pretty banal course through life. As an outsider, we’re presented with a list of things he thinks he’ll do, bonds he’ll forge – except it doesn’t quite work out like that.

You see, The Town has something kind of wrong with it. It has a bus that goes nowhere. A pub nobody drinks at. A radio station listened to by nobody. It’s a literal example of the ennui, the sense of solitude the transplant experiences in their new home.

The book is driven by a kind of hypervigilance: an awareness of being the other, of the potential of being bashed for unknown transgressions. There’s a constant awareness that – now that he’s in this new environment – that its definition seems to fade: there’s always someone keen to look outward, to the City or the Country, but never inwards. The Town begins to disintegrate, literally – so should the narrator stay or should he go?

I grew up – at least until my early adolescence – in the Central West of NSW. I spent my formative years in Orange (curiously an apple-growing hot-spot, in contrast to its name) and so I had thought for a long while that Orange was the setting of the book, but it’s mentioned by name at one point. Even though it turns out my old town was not The Town, I still felt a kinship to the text; a grudging respect for the verisimilitude of the portrait Prescott’s made here.

In her SMH review, Kerryn Goldsworthy suggested Prescott’s writing is aligned with Gerald Murnane. I think this is pretty apt: both The Town and Murnane’s The Plains share a sense of oddity, unremarked by the inhabitants of their respective zones. I certainly have no problem shelving them together; their focus on consensually-accepted weirdness is a distinct bond.

It’s funny, though: other than Murnane, the things I’d compare this book to are films: the languid hell of Wake in Fright, say, or the camp oddity of The Wicker Man but without the caper-cutting or nude fireleaping. Both those films share a certain horror of the environment and are unafraid to have long, expectant shots. There’s stuff happening, but it’s just out of sight, especially if you’re an outsider. This civic hermeticism fuels the interactions of the wider public, but they’re unaware of it: The Town’s denizens erupt in orgies of violence and nobody bats an eye because… well, it’s The Town.

(An aside: I went to the launch of this book – I don’t know the author – at a Sydney bookshop. When I arrived, it seemed everyone else knew each other, so like The Town‘s narrator, I hovered around the periphery for a bit, regarding photographic tomes I’d never buy. I didn’t know then, but that was perhaps perfect, given the general feel of the book: I should probably feel relieved there was no Steve Sanderses in attendance.)

I don’t think the story is quite as well considered as the feeling of the book: I could take or leave the narration itself, as it’s hard to gather much enthusiasm or sympathy for many of the characters, except perhaps the damaged, tape-obsessed Ciara. But I was impressed enough by the rendering of the setting, and of the small observations captured there, to persevere.

That said, I really enjoyed The Town. I think it’s a little like the first season of True Detective: the ending can’t really deliver on the quietly horrific atmosphere that’s been developed, but the atmosphere alone is enough to carry the reader through.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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