Jane Rawson. From the Wreck. 2017. Transit Lounge. RRP:$29.95, 272pp. ISBN: 9780995359451
Jane Rawson was researching the life of her great-great-grandfather when the idea of From the Wreck was born. Like many other great literary writings, the story inspires and seduces different readers in considerably different ways. To this reviewer, the book is a piece of science fiction, not just because one of its protagonists is a creature from ‘another plane of existence’, but also because the story illustrates the sense of perpetual loneliness that we feel as living creatures in this universe.
The alien creature in From the Wreck elicits memories of the indigenous life-form on Europa in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two (1982). A primitive, blind existence with tendril-like limbs, Clark’s life-form desires light and warmth in the same way that Rawson’s alien seeks food and basic survival. But the difference is Rawson’s alien finds out it is all alone and proceeds to make a friend with a human, with consequences that are more like those in Stephenie Meyer’s The Host (2008) than Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955). It is in this process, in which the alien familiarises itself with everything about humanity, that the human is increasingly rendered alien by the physical and psychological trauma he encountered in the sinking of a steamship and continues to experience among his fellow people on land. Not just survivor guilt, but a genuine lack of capacity to be ‘normal’ in accordance with the social, cultural and moral ‘norms’ of his time.
George Hills, the human protagonist in From the Wreck, may be seen as a victim of what is today known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While he desires a sense of security—wife, kids, a job that puts food on his table and a roof over his head—he also desperately needs someone—anyone—to appreciate the fact that to live sometimes means you simply have to eat. His suffering conscience urges him to find the alien, because only it can truly understand him. In the matter of life and death, food is found in any and every edible thing, including the flesh of one’s own species.
Rawson’s writing is indeed ‘mysterious’ as described by Lian Hearn in a prominent front-cover blurb above the book title. The most brilliant character is certainly the alien, who murmurs and shape-shifts and survives first as a woman and then as a cat, before attaching itself to Henry, George’s son, taking over the boy’s mind and body whenever necessary. The partnership between the alien and the child works perfectly. Both observe this rather old world from brand new perspectives and with unique ideas and ideals, while trying so desperately to fit in and be accepted by those that are already there before their arrival:
‘Why do you think I’m so wicked? Why can’t you like me how I am?’ His face was red and crumpled and spit flew from his mouth and sprayed his father’s face. ‘Why?’
George had nothing to say. He sat back in his chair with his face in his hands and Henry watched him weep.
‘She’s only small, Father,’ Henry said. ‘We all are,’ and he reached out a hand towards his father’s shaking leg. But [it didn’t seem] that George had heard. (247)
And, like a child, the alien is scared. Perhaps all living creatures are scared, like George, as they struggle to stay alive in their eternal search for friendship and peace:
And George saw himself, there on the wreck, through the eyes of another: his exhausted, shivering, starving form, so young, and he wanted to wrap himself in his own arms, tell himself that it would all be over soon. That he would be safe. That this was nothing—just a moment—and that the rest of life stretched before him. That someone would love him. That he would wear warm socks and drink water cool from the larder. That he would sleep in a bed. That he would close his eyes and sleep in a bed and wake warm under a kind sun. (255)
All in all, I am glad and grateful that Rawson has turned a segment of her great-great-grandfather’s life into such a fascinating story. A seemingly ordinary man’s life can be extraordinary if imagined differently and really, nothing—not even warm socks and cool water—is truly ordinary. If an alien can see our world through the eyes of a child, with a simple sense of awe, joy and curiosity, then so can we.
Clarke, Arthur C. 2010 odyssey two. London: Granada, 1982.
Finney, Jack. The Body Snatchers. New York: Dell, 1955.
Meyer, Stephenie. The Host: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2008.
Based in Melbourne, Christine Sun is a bilingual writer, translator, editor, independent scholar and publisher of Chinese digital and print books. A recent recipient of the 2016 Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre of Books, Writing and Ideas, her writings have appeared in the Overland Journal, Limina Journal, and the Good Weekend and Victorian Writer magazines.