Pitching a new big top

Circus tent by Mark Ogge, 2010, oil on linen, 76 x 135cms.
Circus tent by Mark Ogge, 2010, oil on linen, 76 x 135cms.

By Edwina Preston
University of Queensland Press, $29.95

THE inhabitants of Canyon start off as circus people. In a land not quite in time, not quite in place, they are eventually pushed from their town by wild winds, dust storms and fires out of control. In caravans and on horseback, they traverse the mountains, settling as refugees, as outsiders, on the fringes of a new town called Pitch. Here they begin again, some dispersing, or taking shape as new characters, plotting and scheming to survive and prosper: to fit in. With the help of a distillery and a nugget of gold, they start to build again - a circus world.

Edwina Preston's first published book was a biography of artist Howard Arkley (Not Just a Suburban Boy) and her first novel is a visual feast, cinematic in scope and style. Although clearly influenced by Dickens, her writing moves smoothly like a camera on tracks, or floats above like a crane shot, zooming in on dusty streets and women's bustles, a cross between the dirt and grime of Deadwood and the fantastic caravan creatures of Carnivale.

The central character, Ivorie Hammer, is a woman uncertain of her past. She's grown up an orphan but remains refined in manner and poise. She's able to fit into all levels of society. She escapes the labels that try to define her. She's searching for her mother but all she has are traces: a lock of hair, a doll, a token of a woman in profile. After she gives birth to a daughter - and is unable to manufacture the maternal love expected - she relinquishes her responsibilities quickly, seeing herself as a ''bad mother'', having ''not the right feelings''. It is Morag Pappy, the midwife who raised her in the early years, who may have the answers to her questions, but she's not talking.

The narrator as all-seeing, all-knowing troublemaker is displayed to dramatic and witty effect. Ranging overhead, landing on earth at will, the narrator makes fun of the characters' foibles and plays with the novel's conventions - the reader is forced to bend to accommodate long and curly sentences, being stuck at intersections, new characters popping up every few pages, and meandering narrative. Just when two lovebirds, Nelly and Robert, swan in for their first kiss, the narrator snaps the reader out of it: ''You must forgive the lapse, but a little romance is necessary in a work of fiction.''

By setting the novel clear of real time and place - floating between the 19th and 20th centuries - Preston brings an immediacy to the characters' dilemmas that parallel our own cultural debates. The Canyon inhabitants start off literally suspended in time: with all the dust, their watches fail to wind. A catastrophic change to the climate sets them off into the mountains. As they arrive in town they are treated as outcasts, forever labelled as ''the circus people''. In Pitch, their dreams are hampered by bureaucracy, where complaints may as well be thrown to the wind. While the men get caught up in regulations, compromised by the dubious authority handed to them, the women are revealed as the better record keepers, who remember details and comment astutely on history. The brothel ledger, the midwife's potions, letters written with passion: here, the true clues are revealed and played out in the final pages.

The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer is a challenging and compelling first novel. Rich in language, detailed characterisation and dialogue, playful while dealing with the big issues - fate, identity, belonging, otherness - it's a strange, simmering world Preston creates, and one that lingers long after the dust has settled.

■Edwina Preston reads from The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer on Monday at 6.15pm at the Wheeler Centre.

This story Pitching a new big top first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.