Call it the Merchant/Ivory syndrome: "My, what beautiful wallpaper!" Malouf, whose last novel, Remembering Babylon, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, spreads thick his beautiful, evocative prose in The Conversations at Curlow Creek, but the swatches hang together in a slightly mismatched and irritating pattern, never cohering into a whole.
The plot, as Malouf sets it up, is interesting: Two Irishman - one a career soldier, the other a rebel peasant - spend the night in a hut in the outback of Australia in 1827, the officer present to oversee the dawn hanging of the peasant. The peasant had wanted a priest, and he's ready to pour his heart out; the soldier wants to go home to claim the girl of his dreams.
The majority of the book, however, is given over to a backstory that would've made Dickens proud. Every last detail of the soldier's upbringing amidst the Irish gentry is recounted. We learn of the tragic death of his opera-singer parents, his adoption by eccentric landowners, his love for the wealthy, smart and reckless neighbor girl, as well as his having to raise his adopted parents' son. There is an inevitable triangle between the soldier, the girl and the son, a three way psychological tug of war for affection. The soldier is all order. The neighbor girl is all fire. The young boy is all rebellion. The soldier traipses around the world to exorcise his demons and to find the inner spark that will win the girl. In New South Wales he learns that the boy he raised has become a rebel leader. By the time he gets to Curlow Creek the only survivor of the young man's band is a lone peasant to be hung in the morning.
Unfortunately, little is exchanged between these characters. Instead there are many poetic passages about rivers, trees and horses. The central theme - the inner conflict of chaos and order - is merely glimpsed in a few compelling passages. With this kind of book, you forget why you are reading it and find it easy to put aside when your eyes glaze over as you stare at the pretty words. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Two men spend the night in a hut in the vast, bleak western highlands of Australia in 1827. One is a convicted felon, a captured member of a gang of outlaws working to foment a rebellion among the colony's oppressed natives. The other is his nemesis, an officer charged with hanging him at dawn. Through their halting conversations, the confluence of their very different lives takes on a mythic quality. Both are exiles from their native Ireland, though from different social strata. The prisoner, Daniel Carney, accepts his fate with stoic dignity, though he mourns the death of the leader of his band, a charismatic fellow known as Dolan. The military officer, Michael Adair, has reason to think that Dolan was really Fergus Connellan, his beloved boyhood friend and adoptive brother with whom he was raised on a beautiful estate. In a series of reflective flashbacks, Adair's relationship with Fergus is revealed, as well as Adair's love for Virgilia, a spirited young woman from a neighboring estate, who loves Fergus instead. Malouf relates his complex story slowly, with more interior monologues than direct action. The narrative acquires power as the deeply pessimistic Adair is forced to acknowledge the forces that have shaped his personality and that of his friends, and the consequences that now lie in wait. Malouf (The Great World; Remembering Babylon) raises existential questions about moral order and justice, depicts the contrast between rich and poor in Ireland and Australia and lyrically describes the landscapes of both countries and the spirits that abide there. The accretion of precise detail rewards the reader with resonating insights. And the surprising epilogue, with its two spiritual resurrections, offers a rich and satisfying denouement.
An Australian of Lebanese descent, Malouf (Remembering Babylon, LJ 8/93) has always written about outsiders. His latest effort, set in 19th-century Ireland and Australia, features two men at odds with the world even as fate sets them on opposite sides of the fence. Raised by a foster mother on an estate in Ireland that will never be his, officer Michael Adair has been sent to oversee the execution of Daniel Carney, an illiterate Irishman who is the last of a band of renegades suspected of planning to foment revolution. As the night wears on, the two men talk. Carney is looking for answers to the big questions in life, which Adair cannot give, and Adair is looking for information on the band's leader, possibly his missing foster brother, Fergus. Much of the novel is taken up with Adair's reflections on his youth with Fergus and neighbor Virgilia, a fond triangle eventually broken up by sexual tension and the different roles assigned to each by society. As usual, Malouf's breathtaking prose-both daring and absolutely apt-gets right to the heart of things. Malouf has a great gift for allowing us to feel life's uncertainty and our struggle to contain it. It's clear from this affecting novel why he recently won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest cash prize ever given an author. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/96.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
An audacious and deeply moving meditation in fictional form on such essential matters as freedom and identity, explored in a series of conversations and recollections.
Most of the conversations take place between two men, one a career soldier sent to oversee an execution, the other the stoic outlaw about to be hanged. Malouf, an Australian writer, has, over the course of eight previous novels (including Remembering Babylon, 1993, and The Great World, 1991) developed a supple, precise prose style and a great talent for revealing the philosophical underpinnings of dramatic events. This new work, set in Australia in 1827, in the dusty outback of New South Wales, once again rings some startling changes on a grim situation. Carney, the outlaw, is the only one of a group of "bushrangers" to be taken alive. An Irishman and ex-convict, he grudgingly begins to talk about his hard, harassed life as the soldier, Michael Adair, questions him about the gang. Adair, also Irish, is gradually moved to a recognition of Carney's fierce, if inchoate, devotion to freedom, and stirred to reflect on the ways in which need and fear can shape our lives. Adair, orphaned as an infant, raised by a friend of his mother's on a great estate, nurses sharp guilts and regrets about his own past. As Adair and Carney spend the long night before his execution talking, sharing confidences, the tough young soldiers accompanying Adair tell a variety of tales, some profane, some troubling, about their own lives. The execution goes off as planned, but Adair, a deeply meditative man, and a convincingly good one, is profoundly altered by the event.
Using material that might have been merely gaudy or melodramatic in less skilled hands, Malouf has shaped a terse, intelligent, resonant meditation on life and loss, again demonstrating that he's one of the brightest and most original of contemporary novelists.
From the Publisher
"Beyond the futility of the law and the loneliness of the human condition, Malouf distils a triumphant beauty.... [His] prose, rich and mellifluous, conjures myth and memory to climax in an ending as elusive as the apparent reversal of the moon above an alien night." -The Globe and Mail
"Enthralling... Malouf pulls from this tightly restricted set of circumstances a far-ranging tale of high emotion that unfolds in a series of rhapsodic passages." -NOW
"Malouf has created a journey into human truth.... He strips away illusions and deference and allows two men to find common humanity against the vastness of a menacing and unbridled environment. In rich, poetic language, he turns a sporadic night-long conversation ... into a poignant and searing summation of man's place in the universe." -Kitchener-Waterloo Record
"Compelling and powerful.... This is a terse, intelligent and rewarding work that does not slip easily from the reader's mind." -Hamilton Spectator