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In the Half Light

In the Half Light

by Anthony Lawrence

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With quiet optimism and a haunting poignancy, the award-winning poet Anthony Lawrence's first novel explores the strange, sometimes marvelous, and entirely disorienting world of James Molloy. For however unexceptional James—an average student, a dutiful son—may appear to outsiders, he knows that he is different. He has visions, and in their eerie


With quiet optimism and a haunting poignancy, the award-winning poet Anthony Lawrence's first novel explores the strange, sometimes marvelous, and entirely disorienting world of James Molloy. For however unexceptional James—an average student, a dutiful son—may appear to outsiders, he knows that he is different. He has visions, and in their eerie halflight two realities—the one that he lives in and the one that lives in him—collide, intermingle, coalesce. Sometimes out of the vibrant confusion inside his head come voices that glide from his mind into his mouth. Vision finds a language of its own. Alone, isolated by his difference, James faces a future without close companionship until the day that he meets Stephanie Riley, a sympathetic guide who leads him to unexpected truths, and then disappears. Driven to learn what lies at the center of his curious universe, James begins a heartrending journey that takes him from a tragic romantic interlude in rural Australia to the west coast of Ireland. There, even as he enters the emotionally turbulent world of Sarah Carmichael, a talented, hard-drinking fiddle player, James emerges into the clarity of self-awareness. And discovers at last the possibilities that lie in friendship, art, love, tomorrow.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In his lucid and vibrant first novel, Australian poet Anthony Lawrence brings readers into the life and mind of James Malloy, a young poet suffering with schizophrenia. But before James realizes his gift for poetry, the jumbled words surging through his mind serve only as a mystery and a nuisance, making his world a confining tangle of lights, sounds, poetic mutterings, and fears.

When James meets Stephanie, a local shopgirl, he finds a woman with nerves as raw as his own. She is the first to recognize both his disorder and his poetic affinity, and she gently encourages him to explore his condition through journaling and seeking help. But his relationship with Stephanie is brief, and James is left to finish his project of self-discovery alone.

James's "illness" takes its toll on his family, straining already tense relationships. But James experiences some of the most carefree, stable days of his life in the company of Tina, a girl from a farm in rural Australia; this affair, however, is also cut tragically short.

After an unmemorable stint in a mental hospital, James leaves Australia and travels to Ireland, where he finds a group of understanding friends and discovers Sarah, a fiery musician whose wounded soul is quickly bound to his. For James's struggle is not so much one of overcoming schizophrenia but of facing his fears of the unknown: hurting others, love and loss, and change. Only when he is able to confront his fears openly and honestly is he finally able to accept himself and find happiness. A noteworthy fiction debut by a talent from Down Under. (Summer 2002 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
Already published overseas to widespread acclaim, this novel by prolific Australian poet Lawrence is an intensive, haunting coming-of-age tale centering on a boy's struggle with schizophrenia in Sydney. Fragile James Molloy, the story's narrator, is a tortured teenager who immediately acknowledges that he was a very strange child, since in frequent out-of-body incidents he saw headlights and heard bells and voices that spoke words seemingly held together by strings and hooks of light. As James matures, his gift becomes a burden as the fainting spells (now accompanied by incoherent speech) begin to frighten those around him. His first foray into romance is with a shop girl named Stephanie, also diagnosed as schizophrenic, and while she befriends James and he grows to love her, she soon disappears. James's parents, struggling to hold together a failing marriage, take him to several doctors for psychoanalysis. When prescribed medication alleviates the headlights, James hitchhikes into the bush, where he meets Colin, a strange loner living in a mountain cabin. A homecoming of tears and tea and cake resumes James's mostly unhappy life, compounded by the separation of his parents and a new relationship that ends tragically. Inspired by a book about Ireland left for him by Stephanie, James sets off for the faraway island, where pub life and a new fiddler friend named Sarah give him fresh reason to live and some sense of normalcy. The author presents a helpless, mentally unstable protagonist with enough dark baggage to sink a battleship, but thanks to Lawrence's poetic prose and steady pacing, his narration shines, making this unusual story enlightening and thought provoking. (June) Forecast: As yet unknown in the U.S., Lawrence will likely be warmly received by reviewers, though it may take him a few more books to build up name recognition among readers. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This debut novel by a celebrated Tasmanian poet follows the early life of James Molloy, a New South Wales boy who hears voices and sees colors inside his head. James is not initially aware of his difference from other children, though his behavior raises concerns in school. Not until he is in high school and meets Stephanie, who is also schizophrenic, does he learn about his illness and the role medication can play in managing its manifestations. After Stephanie moves to Ireland and his parents divorce, James's world changes. Unfortunately, so does the book, which loses its initial focus on schizophrenia and becomes more of a coming-of-age story. James moves to Sydney and falls in love with a girl named Tina. When she is killed in an accident, he proceeds to Ireland in the hopes of finding Stephanie. There, he befriends a group of musicians and falls in love with a troubled alcoholic fiddle player. Although the characters in the initial chapters are convincing, much of what unfolds in Ireland is less engaging, and too many loose ends make for a dissatisfying conclusion. Not required for most collections. David A. Beron , Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The New York Times Book Review
Not surprisingly, Lawrence brings the eye and ear that produced six volumes of poetry to this account of James' journey to self-awareness and artistic fulfillment. Savoring the novel's evocative language and imagery, one often longs to hear passages read aloud. What is significant here is sensibility rather than plotting, and that contributes to the novel's memoirish feel.... James' perspective is so convincingly rendered that one is encouraged when the final page offers an optimistic echo of the first. Katharine Weber
Kirkus Reviews
Australian poet Lawrence perceptively details a young schizophrenic's struggle to live and love normally. Narrator James Molloy lives with his family near Sydney. It's a close and loving clan, but from early childhood on James is increasingly aware of disturbances in his head. He sees gold circles and hears strange noises. He's an indifferent student who gets into trouble for talking to himself and letting his imagination run wild: ". . . words appeared, held together by strings and hooks of light." In his senior year of high school, instructed by his voices, he skips out and heads to Sydney. There, he meets Stephanie, a slightly older woman who also hears voices and talks about moving to Ireland, where her father died. When the two meet again, Stephanie tells James that she's been diagnosed as schizophrenic and suggests that he too needs help. His parents, especially his father, are at first reluctant to accept that James is mentally ill, and the young man himself is determined to make a life as a poet. His struggle to do so is movingly and persuasively detailed with perfectly pitched emotion. Feeling better after he's put on medication, James meets Tina in her father's bookstore and falls in love. But when she's killed in an accident, he finds himself falling through the hole that had once only opened on his bed but now is everywhere. His pills don't help, and James is hospitalized for three years. Emerging as healed as he'll ever be, he knows that with daily medication he is " bound to the earth by a synthetic dependency, but on the earth nevertheless." James then heads to Ireland to find Stephanie, but instead-in an overlong, overdrawn, and unconvincing interlude-meets singer Sarah, the third young woman who will drastically change his life. The initially engaging story loses momentum two thirds through, but this is still a debut of great promise.

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5.43(w) x 9.02(h) x 1.38(d)

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MY FATHER is telling me about his life. It's my life too, because we're back at the holiday house on the coast, and my mother is lying on a camp bed, her dress up around her waist. My father is kneeling beside her, holding a length of cotton between finger and thumb. At the end of the cotton is a bottle cork, pierced with a sewing needle. The cork is hanging, not moving, like a miniature bell over her swollen stomach. I'm inside her. I can hear voices. The light is shifting around.

My father is saying If the cork swings clockwise I'll be a girl. My mother says It will be a girl. How do you know? my father asks. Women know these things, she says, and moves around on the bed.

You don't remember that of course, my father says, looking at the back of his hand. He always does that when he's unsure of himself. He looks at the back of his hand a lot. I ask him if the house on the coast is still there. He doesn't know. He's sure the lagoon is there, with its ribbon weed, flathead and bream. That's important. The lagoon was a place I knew well -- first from lit, muffled descriptions and then, in the world, from walking its blackmud borders; from throwing bits of laughter and my name like bright lures over the water. In a warm red place, I saw gold circles spinning, then black lines and sparks forming spirals behind my eyes. I saw light as a scrim of decaying web. It tracked through my head and down into my arms and legs. My spine was humming with it. With these shapes came the sound of my blood. With the blood, a pulse of fast internal talk. It's my second language. It's the talk no one else can hear.

The cork was wrong. I came widdershins into the world, my brain still releasing its broken lines, wheels and sparks.

Some people speak of memories from the womb: prescriptive, thumb-mouthing dreams. For some it's the vague backdrop of their first two years: the sights, sounds and textures from a wordless dependency. I remember the shapes and colours that veined the inside of my head, but also the way the light would change as I was carried along over the boards of the verandah, its green wooden blinds dividing the day. Now, when I press my closed eyes in the corners near the bridge of my nose, I see similar designs from before birth and from when the world opened. They are the same gold circles that once turned, losing sparks and lines like Catherine wheels in the blood.

What is nameless in childhood, no matter how strange or terrifying, can often be tolerated, even nurtured, because there are no points of reference with which to align fear or danger. My headlights, and the sounds that began to accompany them shortly after I was born, became a source of constant amazement, even pleasure. Early one morning, at the start of the Christmas holidays, a tiny alarm bell rang, and although I all but ignored it, a warning flashed its weak signal and I became aware of shadows moving around between the layers of gold and silver light.

We lived in a country town, high in the New England Tablelands of New South Wales. In the dark school of childhood I see huge balls of balancing granite, black frosts and snow, tubes of ice clicking from the mouths of taps, and, best of all, a massive black pine across the road that the Willoughby brothers had climbed and claimed as their own with a white flag cracking at the top.

The Willoughby boys were tough. Their slingshots were perfect beige forks, their bows and arrows sleek and deadly. Their snowballs were spiked with gravel. They could spit and hit flying insects.

After weeks of my watching them and of being watched, they crossed the road and stared at me. When I didn't run away, they said We've been watching you, do you want to come on a picnic to the river? I felt proud and happy to be asked, and said yes. We were standing in front of their house. When Mrs Willoughby came out in a dress like a sack full of potatoes, the boys asked if I could come. She said Go home and ask your parents. I ran home, made sure no one was watching, stood before the red brick letterbox, and asked them. I said Can I go on a picnic to the river with the Willoughby boys? then said Thanks into the letter slot, and told them briefly about what I'd been doing all morning, moving from one foot to the other as the headlights came on and voices spoke over one another.

When the Willoughbys dropped me off outside my house late that afternoon, it was dark and I was thick with trouble. A police car pulled away from the driveway. My father came to the window. He said Where have you been we thought you were dead. Then Mr Willoughby's arm came over the front seat and his finger stopped near my face. You said you had permission, the finger said. He never asked us, my father said, his face like a red moon at the glass. Now get out of that car.

In the bathroom, leaning over the sink, I thought I heard the Willoughby boys laughing outside the window as my father removed his belt and went to work.

There are many things the tongue refuses. Telling your Mum and Dad about a letterbox filled with voices is one. Telling yourself you don't care about the beltings or the heat it leaves on your arse and legs is another. But that night, in my room, listening to my parents' talk come and go like a wireless in the wind, I heard My Name and The Police in one sentence. I heard No Pocket Money fall from my father's mouth. My mother said The Willoughby Brothers. Then, as if they sensed I was listening, they spoke softly, conspiratorially. I closed my eyes, waiting to cry. I imagined them sitting up in bed, looking into their rumpled laps as car lights folded over the walls and ceiling. I waited for my name to be spoken again, but it didn't come. So I said my name instead. It sounded strange, as if a reflection had spoken. I said it again, louder this time, and then I heard, from a nearby room, the unmistakable sound of parents lying on their backs in the dark, barely touching, going over and over just what it was they hadn't done.


MUM AND DAD loved to go into the country. Picnics were their specialty, and any river or creek with a shifting pebble-bed and a grassy bank was perfect. Dad had been taken sapphire hunting when he was young, and considered himself an expert. He had a matchbox full of uncut stones that he'd rattle near my ear. I knew where he kept them, and I'd get them out when no one was home and spread them on the floor. I loved the way they had different lights inside them, and when I put one to my eye, the day had magic in it. Glimmer. Sheen. The surface of Tenterfield Creek contains enough sapphires for everyone. We find fragments of dark blue stone that turn lightsparks into sapphires that turn back to stone when dry. When we aren't sieving and throwing mud, we're upstream, at a deep section, lowering string weighted with cubes of raw steak from the bank, waiting for yabbies to rise like twists of angry woodsnags with a vegetable-straining safety net held under them.

We are harvesting, up to our elbows or waists in a swirl of pebble-layered New England water. Dad's wearing a pale blue shirt that's going dark to the shoulders as the fabric drinks. I'm wearing underpants and a straw hat. We are playing. The game, if that's what it is, has no name. I'm trying to find the perfect, flat round stone. Several fine specimens are on the bank, dry and lustreless. They failed the test because of a chipped edge or uneven circumference or width. The perfect stone should fit easily into the palm. Its weight should take the hand down, but not too far. It should contain the light of inner minerals. The ultimate test for the perfect stone is its ability to fly and skip over water, leaving stoneprints on dam, lake or river until it settles into a tail-leaving slide. I have thrown several perfect stones. You know them when you hold them. Something goes into your hand. A root of stone enters the skin and grows there.

Dad's game involves bombing tiny green fish with the long blades of stone he's stockpiled on the bank. He whistles as he lets them go, making a sound with saliva that he hopes is like a water tower over the shell of a broken sub.

Mum's upriver with my sister. Their game is called Jump Up Sally, where jumping and hiding feature heavily in the rules.

We've eaten lunch: chicken, watermelon, grapes, cheese, bread rolls. Mum said Don't swim on a full stomach you'll get a cramp and drown. Where we are, the water is so shallow it's below my knees when I stand. Mum's afraid of water. That's because her mother drowned in the Murray when she was little. She watched her go under. When I had baths, she wouldn't leave me alone, even when I was old enough to wash myself. When we were playing under the garden hose, I'd see the curtains opening and closing with concern. Dad's had enough. He's on the bank, drying himself. I'm cold, but I want to find that stone. I go under and open my eyes. Green and silver fish go in and out of light, like ripples. I can't see very well because the water hurts my eyes, and makes everything blurry. When I surface, without a stone, Dad's no longer on the bank. I get out and listen. I look to where Mum and my sister were playing, and see them standing together. Dad's got his arm around Mum's shoulders. They're standing still, looking at something. When I reach them I see an old house at the edge of the bush, with smoke rising from a redbrick chimney. They can't be interested in that, so I look around for something else. There's nothing but trees, a beaten-up old truck near a fence, and the river going off into the distance.

What are you looking at?

Smoke, my sister's voice rises at the end of the word as if she were offering me a cigarette.


Just smoke.

Mum puts her head on Dad's shoulder.

I watch it too. It fans out at the end of its rising and goes the colour of low clouds.

There must be something more to this than just watching smoke, and I say so.

Mum pulls her cardigan close and moves from foot to foot.

Before you were born, she says, shivering, we'd drive up to the lookout on winter afternoons and watch the night come down. If it was still, like it is now, the smoke-lines would be rising all over the place. Some were grey, some white. She took a big breath and let it go. They were pretty. They were good times. My sister is already bored with smoke-watching and kicks a stone around. I'm not far behind her. Dad gives Mum a kiss and holds on to her for ages. I wait. They kiss for too long. I look back at the river. Let's get some yabbies, I say, but it doesn't work. They're still kissing, as if no one was watching, as if the smoke had stopped rising.

Copyright © Anthony Lawrence 2000

Meet the Author

Anthony Lawrence, a native of New South Wales, Australia, has worked as a stockman, truck driver, and teacher of English and drama. He is the author of six books of poetry that have won many awards, and currently lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

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