Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Art of the Engine Driver - Steven Carroll

The Art of the Engine Driver
Steven Carroll

Published in 2001 in Australia this is the first of a trilogy about suburban Australian life written by Melbourne born and based author Steven Carroll. Prior to writing this novel which is set in the mid to late 1950's in a suburb north of Melbourne, Steven had published three other novels, but it is this one that brought him to the general attention of Australian literary readers with it being short listed for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award (widely regarded as the most prestigious award in Australian Literature).

For me, I'm new to the Australian literature scene and was introduced to Steven Carroll through his latest work 'The Time We have Taken' winner of this year's Miles Franklin Award, in fact at the time of the announcement I was flipping the 200th page! And at the conclusion of the book I made haste to reserve the first two books in the series from the library. A very good move in hindsight, as even though the library has increased its available copies from two to about eight, there are today over 25 people waiting for the book to become available. And so for me it was the book I chose out of the pile of 18 odd books I currently have on loan!

It is a quick book to read, easily digestible and accessible to all readers in its straight forward manner. I commenced it on Sunday night and ignoring my wonderful partner, the traffic and my daughter in the car trip to work this morning devoured the last glorious pages. And my initial summary is that this book is better than the third (which immediately nags at me to find out who the winner of the Miles Franklin was for 2002!) and also makes me wonder whether the win this year for the 3rd book, whether the judges have in a way considered all three?

But speculation aside this is the story of a wonderfully ordinary typical Australian family, battlers living in the suburbs dealing with the issues that each of us face on a day to day basis. It centres around three main characters Vic an engine driver with ambitions of promotion from hauling goods by steam to the privileged and eagerly sort position of a big wheel driver (driving passengers by diesel), of Rita and her struggle to come to a decision on her life and marriage, and of Michael their 12 year old son who dreams of cricket, of being a kid, and is facing the reality of growing up too fast.

Steven Carroll takes the mundane normality of these ordinary lives in this ordinary suburb and explores them deeply. He is not afraid to really pick them apart, expose their weaknesses, their fragile foundations and the parts of their character which they will not compromise. It is his skill to dig so thoroughly that really placed me there on that one summer night north of Melbourne as Vic, Rita and Michael stroll down their street to George Bedser's house in order to celebrate the engagement of his daughter. Greeting the neighbours and lost in the thoughts of their lives, ambitions, hopes and failures. There is magic to be found and for me it was how Steven takes what I would consider a boring middle class family in a nothing suburb and turns it into a story that I have thoroughly enjoyed.

There is only one sound that matters. The sound of speed. The old cork ball barely leaves his hand when he hears the snap of impact, sees the ball ricochet off the edge of a fence paling, fly onto the side fence and bounce onto the lawn in front of him. He is aware that the neighbourhood will be listening. He is always aware of the raised eyebrows all around him and the muttered comments that the kid will destroy the fence before he is finished.

Uniquely the book is based on one summer night, and opens up with a 'portrait' of not only Vic, Rita and Michael but also the whole street, the suburb, the party, the whole scene in all its Australian splendor. The Party is the centre piece of this story and the narrative roams back and forth always returning or starting on this night, with a side story of Paddy, Vic's hero, who at the same time is pulling out of Spencer Street Station.

One aspect of Steven's writing amazes me, and that is his wonderful talent of being able to deliver the ending to a story before its truly begun without losing the reader. I am not sure if other people would find this delightful as I do, or irritating, and indeed in other books I have found the looking forward such as 'this would be a moment they would remember for years to come' or 'this single moment, Jack would ponder many times in his future' to be an annoying way of underlining text to ensure the reader knows its important. But in this story I found it charming, in an odd way, it is like being let in on a secret that only you and the author share.

And that's the way his life will end. A quiet funeral. Rita, Michael, and a few of those sympathetic strangers he would call friends throughout the last years. A couple of drinks afterwards. A short drive to the cemetery. And a nice spot in a tropical garden for the urn full of dust that he will become.

In summary the book is like a path which you know leading somewhere important, and as you reach that place it is the consequences of the journey that make the decision. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

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