McCulloch, Scott. Basin. Collingwood: Black Inc., 2022. RRP: $24.99, 192 pp, ISBN: 9781760643515.
Limprecht, Eleanor. The Coast. Allen & Unwin, 2022. RRP: $32.99, 336 pp, ISBN: 9781760879402.
One of the hallmarks of the contemporary literary landscape—both in so-called Australia, and internationally—is the promiscuity with which style is treated. No singular generic convention or literary movement defines modern fiction writing as a whole. This diversity of style is beautifully illustrated by a comparative reading of Basin by Scott McCulloch and The Coast by Eleanor Limprecht—a juxtaposition between starkly modernist prose, and elaborate historical fiction.
Scott McCulloch’s Basin is a visceral novel—quite literally. From the outset, its pages are stained with bodily fluids. Sweat, urine, vomit, semen, blood: the narrative bloats with the outpourings of the human body. Basin opens with its main protagonist—referred to simply as Figure—being rescued from attempting to drown himself. Figure wakes to a ‘ravaged throat and wide eyes on pebble beach’ (3) in an unnamed nation riven by conflict. The imagery McCulloch employs—of mindless bloodshed, the desperation of fleeing bodies, environments degraded by violence—is all too familiar to readers inhabiting the post-9/11 landscape. Basin is set everywhere and nowhere; it is both specific in its textual detail, and aware of the ubiquity of the scenes it attempts to map out. This tension provides a strong motor for the novel. ‘I am torn’, thinks Figure, ‘between poetry and reality to the point where I can see it in the terrain itself, the land condemned to chaos, to amnesia […] the pulse of sheer libido, the muscle of mindless sex, dementia’ (21). This line, between poetry and reality, is the space which Basin inhabits.
McCulloch’s novel mirrors the brutal tenderness evident in many works of Absurdist literature—indeed Basin, with its preoccupation with sex and death, is a kind of twin to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. While the novel is alive with the corporeal, it does not neglect the cerebral. In Basin, there is an attentiveness to suffering, both of Figure and the people he meets along his travels. There is also an awareness of the futility of this suffering, because, in the mud and mire of conflict, individuals become shapes, bodies, things—small drops in a larger ocean. McCulloch articulates this desperation and cruelty eloquently. Yet he also does something else; he sketches the way in which this slow tempo of societal collapse reawakens the body to a sensual awareness of the world. At one point in the novel, Figure is enfolded by ‘the smell of mould and bacteria’, leading him to muse that ‘we’re more mould than blood, and more water than both of those put together’ (28). A charismatic tidal thrum reverberates throughout Basin, where water becomes symbolic of both death and life:
Water as space, is not there, but is already there, as a solution in time. Like pain and suffering. Removing pain and suffering removes a person’s freedom. The yearn for happiness is a farce, it only leads to psychosis, and not in an interesting way. (73–74)
Basin is a perfect narrative loop: Figure emerges once more from the ‘black and green’ sea (185). In this circuity, he ‘glide[s] up and down the scale’ (186). His sense of individuality washes away, and he realises that ‘now we are no-one’ (186).
Eleanor Limprecht’s The Coast examines the life of Alice, a girl sent to the Coast Hospital at Little Bay in Sydney: a quarantine station for those suffering from leprosy. Yet The Coast does not limit itself to a singular perspective or time period; it centres itself only ostensibly around Alice’s story. The novel is polyphonic, and the range of voices which Limprecht deploys is wide. While Alice’s world is enclosed within the walls of the leper lazaret, the stories of other characters interweave into the broader frame of the novel.
The reader travels through shifting time periods—the chapters rove from 1926 and 1905, to 1910, 1892 and 1915, among others—as well as different locations: Queensland, Sydney, the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, and overseas. At some points, these changes feel jarring and disorienting—The Coast is best read in large bites in order for the reader to remain grounded in the narratives Limprecht unfolds. These temporal shifts in the novel align with significant events in Australian history: massacres of First Nations peoples; the beginnings of the policy of forced removal of Indigenous Australians which would go on to create the Stolen Generations; the racial politics present within the ANZAC troops in World War I. Through Guy, a Yuwaalaraay man who fights in the War and is later transferred to the Coast Hospital on suspicion of having contracted leprosy, Limprecht deftly articulates the history of the appalling treatment of First Nations Australians during this time period.
The surge of the ‘rough green sea’ (7) slices through the heart of The Coast. Alice finds solace from her confinement, whether in the lazaret or in her own deteriorating body, in secret walks to a nearby beach, and the sea provides a sense of consistency for her as her world is threaded with anxiety and change. She finds a friend in Greta, a girl being treated for tuberculosis nearby—but even this source of joy is unstable: once Greta’s parents discover that Alice is a leper, they force their daughter to break off the friendship. Their parting only enhances Alice’s frustration at her confinement:
I ran straight to the water’s edge and hurled [Greta’s] parcel, as hard as I could, into the sea. I hoped she was watching. The parcel bobbed on the water, threatening to wash back in. Slowly, then all at once, it grew heavy. Slowly, then all at once, it drowned (91).
The Coast is a novel that seeks to interrogate what it means to drown, symbolically: to become mired in a disease which is outside of your control; to become submerged in a colonial society which is not your own.
The thematic which binds McCulloch’s Basin and Limprecht’s The Coast inextricably together, despite their stylistic differences, is the motif of bodies of water. Both novels run with liquid; mercurial, magnetic. The bodies of water present in both novels are symbolic of both death and life; horror and liberation. Water is the muscle which drives the two narratives, and which stretches beyond the differences in genre between Basin and The Coast.
Ellie Fisher is a poet and writer. Her creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Gems zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others. Ellie is studying Honours in English at The University of Western Australia, researching a creative writing dissertation on gender, bodies, and prose poetics. She lives in Kinjarling, on unceded Menang land.