Polain, Marcella. Driving into the Sun. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2019. RRP $29.99. 312pp. ISBN: 9781925591996.
Marcella Polain’s Driving into the Sun is a tightly-crafted novel about a family suffering the loss of a husband and father in 1960s Australia. Most of the story is told through the eldest daughter, Orla’s, point of view as she learns to cope with a new suburb, a new school, and the responsibility of looking after her sister Deebee whilst their mother, Henry, goes out to work.
Readers may struggle with the early stages of this novel, as—constituted mostly by Orla’s recollections—there is little narrative tension. Some readers might also struggle with Orla’s unique voice. However, persistence pays off, for tension steadily increases throughout the book and Orla’s voice emerges as a powerful means of entering her real-time, embodied, slow-burn experience of grief.
Polain sometimes uses overt stylistic strategies to literalise the fragmentary, semi-comprehending nature of Orla’s experiences
She had to get up. Because she could be. She could be wrong. She had to breathe and breath. Her heart. She could be wrong. She had to. She was so often wrong. Wrong legs. Wrong face. Wrong crying. Wrong idea. She had to. Get up. (60)
Though very effective in small doses, overuse of this device can pull readers up from the story’s depths to its writerly surface. Aside from this, Orla’s voice generally convinces as that of a hyper-sensitive pre-pubescent girl, and allows readers to experience the horror of losing a parent at an age where the difference between fiction and fact is unclear. Orla is learning that beliefs aren’t truths, and she constantly wonders if the world is as it seems (148), or if everything is ‘just a story, or a trick’ (173):
Her mother had said, ‘If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, you don’t get any presents,’ in a singsong voice, and she had understood what that meant, that they were all in it together, the joy of the game, the choosing of belief. (195)
Orla thus lives in an ambiguous ontological landscape, painfully torn between her mother’s brutal realism and the imagined world of Deebee, a world which they all try to protect for it is a world in which their husband and father is still alive: ‘he is there, Orly’ (279).
Orla’s perspective provides a subtle and effective means of evoking the wider context in which she lives. Indirectly, she reveals the economies of love, hate, secrets and lies that constitute every family’s life. Though readers have the benefit of adult understanding, Orla’s voice reminds us what it’s like to be subjected to the arbitrary and often violent behaviour of adults. Considering the power of Orla’s voice, Polain’s occasional use of other characters’ perspectives seems odd: it risks puncturing the reader’s experience of Orla’s inescapable, singular trauma, and undermines the novel’s structural assertion that children’s perspectives are valid in their own right.
Set at a time when women couldn’t get a bank loan without a male guarantor, Henry is acutely aware of the gendered nature of her socio-economic status:
Things change; things stay the same. One person less makes a hole, a smaller meal, makes a three-quarter family that isn’t quite. No husband, no father, only two-thirds the meat… and strangers wonder: what did she do to drive him away or into his grave? Look how she’s let herself go; she’s a bitch, she’s a nag… a woman on her own should be watched; she’s sex-starved, she’s trouble. (180-181)
Meanwhile, Deebee plays with ‘boy’s toys’ and won’t wear dresses or grow her hair (278, 274). She asks Orla: ‘Am I a girl?… Kids say I’m not’ (274). Both sisters wonder ‘What it is to be a girl’ (289). The transformation of Orla’s family into an all-female threesome thus seems pressurised by—and perhaps mirrors—their society’s wider struggle to free women from male dominance and relational identities. The ambiguous gender of women’s names (like Harry, Kit, and Henry) further suggests this.
Though Orla remembers her father as unpredictable, surly, distant and sometimes aggressive, she idealises him. After his death, the men in her life include a terrifying prowler, a wife-beater, and a paedophile. The presence of these idealised/demonised men seems to emphasise men’s power to dictate women’s status and safety. The prowler is significant, thus the question of whether he’s real or imagined potentially risks leaving readers confused about—rather than compelled by—the novel’s ambiguous conclusion.
Whilst men make up the best and worst of Orla’s world, mothers, sisters and female friends are at war with one another. This occurs in a (Christian?) moral context preoccupied with sin, shame and guilt. This context provokes Orla to be fundamentally at war with herself—as indicated by her concerns about God, Jesus, and being a ‘good’ girl (10). The novel thus depicts a personal and social world that grants ‘Satan’-faced (292) prowlers and idealised patriarchs primacy—whilst giving women little power to do anything other than hurt themselves and each other.
Driving into the Sun ultimately succeeds at the very difficult task of evoking a child’s point of view. Readers are forced to feel the ‘something’ that is ‘trapped and frantic’ (134) in Orla, that is, her struggle to accept the impossible facts that people die and grief is endless.
H.C. Gildfind is the author of the short story collection The Worry Front, published by Margaret River Press (hcgildfind.com).