Van der Eecken, Tineke. Traverse. Greenmount WA: Wild Weeds Press, 2018. RRP $25.00, 213 pp, ISBN 978-0648320678
While the most common understandings of the word ‘traverse’ relate to notions of journeys and crossings, the Oxford English Dictionary offers several further definitions, which lend themselves to more nuanced interpretive possibilities:
Something that crosses, thwarts, or obstructs; opposition; an obstacle, impediment; a trouble, vexation; a mishap; misfortune, adversity […] to go to and fro over or along; to cross and recross. to traverse one’s ground, to move from side to side, in fencing or fighting (OED)
In Tineke Van der Eecken’s latest book, published by Wild Weeds Press, the self-publishing arm of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Foundation, these multiple interpretations certainly come into play. Traverse was short-listed for the 2016 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. Described as a ‘travel memoir’ that ‘charts the unfolding disintegration of a marriage’, it opens with Van der Eecken grappling with the complexities and vexations of relocating family, home and professional life from Australia to England, thanks to her geologist husband’s career. She has to navigate this testing process while also undergoing the stealthy disintegration of her emotional life, signalled by Dirk’s repeated work-related absences, and his affair with a married co-worker in Madagascar.
The discovery of this infidelity has predictable results for the couple: a period of estrangement and miscommunications followed by apparent reconciliations while attempting to hold normality together for their two children. It becomes clear, however, that their English adventure is destined for early termination, and perhaps the marriage too will not survive.
In an attempt to confront issues with her marriage, and perhaps reassert her relevance within it, Van der Eecken decides to accompany Dirk to Madagascar for an arduous field trip. She wants to try to understand the obsession that has taken hold of him, to walk in his footsteps, metaphorically as well as literally. They will spend five weeks on the island, and twenty-one days will be spent traversing 350 kilometres of ‘the rainforest, the heavy rains, the mountains and the crocodile-invested river-crossings’ (98) of its central region.
This odyssey, however, plagued as it is by logistical misfires, communication breakdowns, injured feet, fugitive porters, insects and dwindling food supplies, not to mention contact with her husband’s lover, proves to be only one of the difficult traverses Van der Eecken recounts in this courageous and raw memoir. Her determination to make a go of living in a new country, only to be thwarted by the blow of Dirk’s infidelity to their already vulnerable relationship, engenders in Van der Eecken an increasing sense of urgency to resolve matters one way or the other, and to address the imbalance caused by years of shifting her life to fit around Dirk’s.
Thus the fencing begins between wife and husband and, perhaps more tellingly, between Van der Eecken and the institution of marriage itself. The volatility of this situation is reflected in the writing, and sometimes it is a little challenging to keep up with the dynamics of both the relationship and Van der Eecken’s psychological processes. While it is only natural for the mind to dart to and fro over problems such as how to weather a dysfunctional marriage, as far as this account is concerned it feels like some of the narrative’s pacing and connectivity could have benefited from more editorial shaping and development, in order to maintain some emotional coherence for the reader. For example, in two adjoining pages we are first told ‘here I was, with the man of my life. I felt lucky, warm with love’ (74) and then in the next ‘we were unable to talk, let alone resolve what had driven us apart’ (75). This may simply reflect the understandable disorientation caused by the situation, however, the number of seeming volte-faces risks becoming a little too disorienting for the reader. Perhaps this is also intensified by the book’s structure: the first third packs in nearly two years’ worth of exposition in order to arrive at the point where the Madagascan adventure begins. The remaining two-thirds thus deal with events spanning just over a month. As a result, the narrative feels a little imbalanced at times.
Bis lanana, spoken interrogatively, is Malagasy for ‘is there a path?’ When delivered as a statement, it means there is a path, even if it is not obvious. It is here, in the Madagascan section, that the memoir really begins to find its stride. We follow the author’s effortful progress through this beautiful yet unyielding country. Van der Eecken’s descriptions are vivid; she does not varnish the experience nor spare the physical or behavioural shortcomings of herself and others from frank appraisal. Compared with the endurance demanded by rigours of the trek, the author’s encounters with Fara, Dirk’s (now) ex-lover seem almost anti-climactic. The more Van der Eecken focuses on the journey and the dynamics of her fellow travellers, the stronger the narrative becomes. It may sound counterintuitive, but the less things are spelled out, the clearer they become. The reader is still kept abreast of what is happening to the marriage: ‘[a]t those times when a tree trunk was used as a bridge, I felt insecure crossing it. Sometimes I needed to walk around the long way and have everyone wait for me. At other times I crossed with the help of someone else. It was never Dirk’ (147).
Before leaving Madagascar, an intriguing conversation takes place between the ex-lover and the wife, which hints at the significance of the journey, and what it has done to and for the marriage. Van der Eecken tells her erstwhile rival:
Before I came … everything to do with Madagascar was painful, negative, and it was the opposite for Dirk … we could never have continued with such differences between us. We had to find a balance. We had to get through this together. And we have. (207)
One could conclude from what is being said that this is positive news for the marriage, and a subtle way of telling Fara to back off; however, in the subsequent ‘Postlude’ it is apparent things have flipped again. Van der Eecken makes references to being alone, and finding her ‘true self’ (212).
Through Wild Weeds Press, Van der Eecken has produced a handsome-looking book. In terms of structure it could have used a little more than the ‘light editing’ available through this press; yet these concerns should not detract from acknowledging the unflinching honesty and integrity Van der Eecken brings to the telling of her story.
“traverse, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2019, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/205279
“traverse, v.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2019, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/205281
Mags Webster’s first collection of poetry The Weather of Tongues (Sunline Press) won the 2011 Anne Elder Award. Her next collection Nothing to Declare is published by Puncher and Wattman in October 2019.