Before I went to New Zealand last year, I trailed the aisles at the Brisbane City Library and randomly picked up Jess Huon’s The Dark Wet. I’d never heard of her, but the publisher was Giramondo, usually a sign of quality, and when I opened the pages I found the prose sparse and clean. I checked it out and read it on the plane, then re-read it over Christmas.
It seems apt that I should be reviewing The Dark Wet while rain sheets down outside as the remnants of a cyclone wash south. I have been stuck inside for two days, except for a walk to the shops for teabags (it was an emergency) and to Sister’s for a coffee, and I’m going a little spare. However, at least I haven’t been flooded, and I still have power.
Huon’s work is a series of short story cycles that made up three novellas. The first story, ‘The Invisible Boy’, revolves around the absence of Dan Hess who, even in life, seemed not to be wholly present. It’s narrated in third person by his friend Jed, who has left Melbourne to study art in Perth. The second story, ‘Earth’, opens with the birth of Jed’s child, and is set in Darwin. Dan’s sister, Alexandra, has come to stay. What I loved about these first two stories was their casual incorporation of Indigenous characters and art. The indigenaity of the Hesses is only hinted at, through the use of terms such as ‘deadly’ and Danny Hess’ ‘effortless, animal grace’ (p. 24 of 34)* akin to that of Aboriginal footballers, and it’s never made clear if they are indeed Aboriginal, probably because Jed, though he had noticed their skin, he ‘never thought about it, somehow accepted it as another part of their otherness’ (p. 25 of 34). I thought, this is how it should be. It shouldn’t matter if one is Asian or Aboriginal or white, a reference to skin shouldn’t have to carry a load of cultural baggage. However, it does, especially in these times, when we’re still trying to get equality for Indigenous people, and recognition of their culture is one way of getting there. The descriptions of Darwin captured the heat and languidness of the town beautifully, and I was charmed by the account of life with Waratah, the newborn, which was rendered as a glut of sensuality, rather than sleep deprivation and irritation. I absolutely adored this story, with its gentleness and quiet lyricism, and have thought about it on and off for a while.
The second set of stories, collected under the title ‘A wide lens’, revolve around a pair, Isabelle and Oliver, who grow up together, inseparable until they reach late adolescence. Isabelle falls for Oliver, but her dynamic, devouring personality irritates him, because she wants too much. Oliver, by contrast, is more muted, more uncertain of himself and where his desires lie. The stories are about growing up and cleaving, and discovering how you aren’t a pair with a shared vision, but individuals whose lives need to move in different directions. It was a peculiar relationship, but I enjoyed following it to see where the characters would end up, and certainly identified with Isabelle’s attempts to drag herself out of hopeless love.
The third story cycle, ‘The Leopard’ unfolds around the narrator, who has returned to India to pursue her guru, for whom she has fallen. However, she falls ill, and heads for the cooler hills to recover. She discovers the place in which she’s staying is a Christian ashram. I had never known that such places existed, with Westernised Indian people, and busloads of Christian tourists arriving, and was fascinated.
Traversing Perth, Melbourne, Darwin, San Francisco and Varanasi, the stories are about where you go when conventional, urban life doesn’t seem to accept you. San Francisco, the place to which Oliver retreats, is referred to as ‘the city of other’ (22), a place where his crossing of gender boundaries is accepted. The stories are also about losing a person who anchored you, and trying to find your life without them. The writing is absolutely gorgeous – so delicate and poised, and rendered with beautiful details such as the following:
The magnolia flowers grew out of bare-boned twigs. The neat white buds opened into a flourish of mauve. Their lips were velvety, the streetlight filled them. They were like cups of light. She stood under the flowers, the light seemed to flow out of them and into her, she was all lit up (p. 24 of 25).
The few reviews I read of The Dark Wet were puzzlingly poor, critiquing it for unevenness. The structure wasn’t tight, but I was so enamoured of the writing, and the new places it was taking me, that I wasn’t bothered by its looseness. I found so many intricacies in the stories that it’s something to which I’ll definitely return to puzzle out, and of course I will step into its language again, so much like a balmy and fragrant summer evening.
*I read this on booki.sh, so referencing is difficult as the page numbers differ according to the size of the font.
Book details: Huon, Jess. The Dark Wet. Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing, 2011.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council library.