Rossiter, Richard. Refuge. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2019. RRP: $24.99, 286pp, ISBN: 9781760800376.
She’d seen the building often enough in the distance, and sometimes the boys or the man, on her frequent walks through the bush to the coast. She could look across to it from her side of the scrubby hill they shared, the boundary unfenced but marked by a firebreak. Apart from trees along the creek line, there wasn’t much high vegetation on these coastal blocks; still. She was surprised how easy it was for buildings and people to disappear from sight within a few metres of where you were standing. (2)
German born Greta lives in a shed off the grid on the coast of Western Australia. She followed a literary hero and an explorer from Hamburg to the remoteness of Australia, but even here her guilt haunts her.
Tinny lives with his sons Skel and Rock in a shed of their own on the same hill. One of Tinny’s regrets is the absence of the boys’ mother, Prudence-Peaches, who left when they were small but now seeks reconnection.
Meanwhile, Clive grieves the loss of his wife and their son in a car crash. He looks to apportion blame, and he’s decided to assign it to Greta, rightfully or not.
Just like the isolated properties in the coastal scrub, Richard Rossiter’s novel Refuge is a text of incomplete boundaries and the urge to belong. In this meditation on place, family and race relations, the past and the present blur together, they are exhumed, avoided, and obsessed over almost simultaneously. The cast of characters is interwoven throughout and the rich story unfolds slowly, piecemeal, like dappled light through the bush. The boundaries that do exist are ephemeral: the firebreaks that are all that will protect the characters from the ever-present threat of fire; the fabric of gloves separating skin from skin; the billowing scrub; the blurred distinction between sky and sea; even the sheds Greta and Tinny live in, which let the outside in and out like breathing.
Tinny’s boundaries are shot through with holes, his inner dialogue running out through constant chatter, his empathy growing through his realisation of his own mortality. In the shifting mirage of boundaries lays a tension between control and responsibility, personified by Clive, who takes his horrifying revenge seemingly without a thought for the responsibility he himself holds for his treatment of others. Greta craves boundaries, and imposes her own artificial ending on situations by running away from them. How far can a German woman with a literary PhD run? All the way to the south-west coastal scrub, to a shed without electricity where she is tormented equally by Clive and by her own history.
It was a lonely and dangerous life. There, she was not trapped by history, or so she believed, but this was not really true. History in Australia was more elusive. What she did believe was that she was trapped by a single being, Clive, a madman whose mind had collapsed. He had followed her, believed a story he wanted to believe, and attacked her. And he would do it again if she reported him. She wondered whose footsteps Clive walked in. She was tempted to see Clive and Maia as part of a larger story—a story of damaged people, unresolved conflict, exploitation—so how could they possibly stay together happily? (155)
The elusive history in Australia is the larger story, but it is connected to the growing unease of populations around the world. Greta starts to see the protests in Syria, the riots in the UK, terror attack in Paris, as part of the same story. A story of violence, a loss of belonging and ultimately, of a lack of responsibility. The history of Australia, of dispossession, violence and exploitation, the refusal to own the past, it lurks in shadowy corners, always there but barely acknowledged.
This novel is a slow read, with an artfully constructed sense of place and joy in the natural environment. But in its depiction of the social environment I felt a rising anxiety, a sense of impending doom from the first page haunted by bushfire, to the last. That doom, when it arrives, is almost normalised. The work-a-day terrors of fear and violence inflicted upon women, the immensity of trauma and loss in remote communities, Greta meets all of these with the same deadpan approach and flees them one after the other, until there’s nowhere left to run.
In Refuge, it is taking responsibility that finally gives the characters their sense of belonging. Taking responsibility for the past, and taking responsibility for the place in which we live. And by extension, the novel teaches us, in the gentlest way possible, that to take responsibility for our past as a society, and for our own actions individually, is to earn a place, and a community, to which we belong.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.