Jones, Gail. The Death of Noah Glass. Melbourne, Victoria: Text Publishing, 2018. RRP: $29.99, 336pp. ISBN: 9781925603408
There is a lot that can be said about Gail Jones’ latest novel, The Death of Noah Glass. For starters, one could say that it is well-crafted: it is so carefully structured and so luminously detailed that it will keep you thinking. One could also say that it is quite dense: there are so many details that it can be overwhelming. Regardless, there is one thing that can definitely be said: the novel is rich, and it offers a lot more than the title suggests.
Having said that, the novel is about the death of Noah Glass. When Noah is found floating face down in his apartment block’s swimming pool, his adult children, Martin and Evie, put aside their fraught relationship to reunite and mourn his death. As they come to terms with Noah’s death, it is revealed that their father is a suspect in an art theft in Italy, and it seems that the novel will explore this mystery. But for anyone who knows Jones’ work, the novel will become much more than that. Jones’ merger of themes—family drama, crime, romance, memory, art history, and Italian and Australian history—makes Noah Glass’ death the catalyst of a literary expedition into grief.
The fascinating elements of this expedition are sight and memory. Through these, Martin and Evie are drawn into the direct experience of other times and places: haunted negotiations between the past and present. Sometimes these images are unsettling:
‘He watched in guilty fascination as the man became smaller under the boot … the reduction of one man’s life to bodily distress, time abolished in the crux of a spectacle.’ (168)
‘What Martin feared was that his memories would throw him off balance … Small recollections were overtaking him and seemed a kind of weakness …’ (53)
At other times, they are comforting:
‘He saw at last a painting whose singular majesty moved him and was reminded why art history was worth pursuing.’ (70)
‘It was somewhere outside Rome, on Appian Way. She remembered the sunlight and the confrontation and smart-alec Martin’s humiliation … That day they ate pistachio gelati, rode on wonky bicycles and visited the catacombs.’ (147)
Regardless, their remembrance of past experiences and their observance of the visual images around them allow the characters to negotiate how those memories and images inform their present sense of grief. The images put things into perspective, allowing Martin and Evie to reconsider their future possibilities, build a sense of rapport with one another, and find direction in their present lives.
In this way, Jones seems to posit that this is one way of coping with, and understanding, grief. She reminds us that although life is brief, art lives on. If we have the capacity to observe and remember what we have seen, and then later reproduce those visual images and experiences through our memory, we already have the necessary tools to cope with grief. Martin realises this at the end of the novel:
‘Martin is already thinking about his father in artful terms: The Death of Noah Glass. This is how he will cope. He will convert his father to art and place him in the world of images.’ (313)
In this way, Noah does not die; he is now accessible as an image-via-memory. This gives Martin peace of mind, and he can overcome his grief to continue with his present life.
Although this seems like a complex postulation, Jones presents her abundant ideas with great care. Her prose is poetic and gentle, and each chapter is beautifully structured to create an enriching reading experience that allures you with its complexity. A novel of this richness will provide book clubs and individual readers with a remarkable feast of interpretation.
For Gail Jones fans, you will not be disappointed by the complexity of this novel. There are so many wondrous details that will keep you pondering, and you will want to reread the novel so that you can soak up every detail. For those who have not read Jones’ work before, The Death of Noah Glass will be a luminous introduction to the work of one of Australia’s master novelists.
Rebecca Harris is a recent Bachelor of Arts (Honours) graduate from the University of Western Australia. She was Regional Project Support at writingWA, and she has completed editorial internships with Margaret River Press and Westerly. In June 2018, Rebecca will begin her first full-time job in Japan.