Michael, Rose. The Art of Navigation. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2017. RRP: $24.99, 244 pp. ISBN: 9781742589213
Spanning the years between 1587 and 2087, Rose Michael’s The Art of Navigation weaves storylines that remain interrelated and heavy with significance despite five centuries of separation. The protagonist, a woman named Nat, harnesses the power of seeing across time and space where she meets with another who is likewise searching: Ed Kelley, a man with the same accursed gift.
Michael’s book is filled with numbers and mingled lives. One of several narrators, Nat’s own grandson, describes, ‘The first wizard I ever drew was in 1995 […] she always said […] watching the pictures my pen conjured, that I was born a listener’(9). I understood at once this book was intertwined with fractured perspectives. I was surprised at how intimate the author made the third-person narrative feel as I watched the story unfold from over each character’s shoulder. Shifts in the story are noted by location, time of day or year. This temporal logging holds the manic narrative in place the way a sky of stars might guide a ship even in the dark of night.
I always lament how most speculative fiction fails to take advantage of history’s breadth. Rose Michael’s five hundred years of story remains an exception. Her novel reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, paying tribute to popular culture, especially music. Both authors spin their stories with references to song and style, and move through the timelines they explore like a skipping record. We hear from a young Nat, ‘It was 1987, the year cock rock crossed into the mainstream, and in the Yarra Ranges one night in May our trio were belting out “Livin’ on a Prayer”’ (12). Michael uses these cultural cornerstones as another means of marking the reader’s progress as they course through her maelstrom of a novel.
In connection with this musical theme, Michael’s writing style is reminiscent of Poe in its dark lyricism, finding the intersections between music and language. Nat imagines a story told over candlelight:
Visualizing it vividly, though she knew she must be making it up: a pale androgyne emerging into watery sunlight as if passing through a dark doorway. (23)
Heavy use of sound rhyming and imagery enhances the moving structures of language just like her shifting foundations of the plotline.
Time travel, a typically science-fiction trope, is wrought anew as it is pushed through the lens of the supernatural. The mind is used as the mechanism of travel rather than technology. The depicted future still manages to sustain a curious reader with potential insights, however; we see a futuristic ‘skyring’ machine that takes google earth to a whole new level. I was moved by images like, ‘The silver plates of his 2087 machine project forward pictures from further back: 1997, 1987, 1587. Project back echoes from a future shore. Nat […] returning to the screen, types. Skrypes. Intent on seeing for herself […] what happens. Next’ (219-220).
The Art of Navigation explores the ever-potent theme of procreation, both the act and the unavoidable consequences. The story makes use of sexual tension to blend the lines between characters, body and soul, like the primal act itself. Ed Kelley, the famous rogue retold, inhabits the body of a Queen of England: ‘He is Bess, again. In a crystalline dream, Kelley finds himself in the body of their Queen’ (177). Kelley cannot help but enjoy the emotions and sensations of the woman whose eyes he peers from. Within her, he feels again, ‘That flickering flame of feeling that begets the urgent fire of desire’ (178). Scarcely a page passes without such carnal interruptions.
Psychologically engaging and as mysterious as the subconscious itself, the plot of Rose Michael’s novel will have you adjusting your reading glasses until its end. The Art of Navigation is a novel as complex as a sailor’s knot.
Serious navigators only!
TJ Reynolds has published non-fiction and poetry with NAILED Magazine, Hour After Happy Hour Review, and F(r)iction Magazine. He writes from a strewn desk in Long Beach, California, and raises three gorgeous children.