‘…, that day the storyteller and the listener were in an unlikely type of tuning, on either side of the roadside fire, as clouds went by seeking the east, and airy florets of moisture anointed them as they passed, the solid ground they were on as brief a reprieve as life itself from the sea of deeper time.’
Wesley Cress was camped by a King Island roadside, escaping the past by going to the unknown. She came cycling by, an ex-wild child, now wild-woman, giving Wes a future. But before all that could occur, he had a story to tell, but to only her. Yes, only her. And the island itself, this foreign bit of Tasmania? ‘…: the mist rises from the strait to meet the lenticular hovering like a halo above the swatch of land. The result is a sticky density of a dream. You can see the motion of the mist like a sculptured thing, the light too, streaming past as you cut the wood, or pouring down the gullies with the mobility of solid water itself…’
I recall, once upon a time, a Charles – at least that was his name as I remember it. He left uni to go a-teaching and his first appointment was Currie – or it could have been Grassy. He was only intending to stay awhile. But stayed a lifetime – the place hooked him. Such outliers sometimes do. He was drawn to its wildness and otherness. A certain place has hooked me too, being drawn to it by a beloved son. Not as isolated maybe, but isolated enough. I know the feeling. It happens. And this and more happened to Wesley.
And Gregory Day is some storyteller too. He’s been likened to Winton and called our best writer of nature. But I think he is more akin to Miller myself. Day is best known for his gong garnering ‘The Patron Saint of Eels’ from back in ’06. ‘Archipelago of Souls’ is my first Day – and hopefully not my last.
The writer had a story he wanted to tell. It had been hovering around in his mind for a while but he needed a fulcrum to pin it down. He wanted to construct a tale involving our nation’s conflict experience – not by any stretch a novel notion. It was not to be about Gallipoli or Kokoda, but more ‘… the Australian male psyche in relation to trauma and war…’ In his travels, as a younger man, Day had visited and fallen in love with Crete, its people and the fact that so many cafés had, on their white-washed walls, old tattered images of Aussie serviceman arm in arm with local resistance fighters. He, as an Australian, was embraced by the natives. His German travelling companion – not so much. And that actual World War 2 campaign, in itself, was unusual. It was an unseemly, chaotic affair with the Nazis drifting down from above.
Still he needed that nub. It came with a tale he was told of the British evacuation from Crete. One of the ships, the Imperial, lost its steering. All the troops were taken off and the ship was sunk by friendly fire to stop it falling into enemy hands. Only trouble was there were a few Australian soldiers, below decks, comatose from the drink. They drowned. Now Day had the trigger for Wes to behave the way he did. His hero missed the evacuation because he was busy with a local lass behind a wall. He was thus stranded on the Mediterranean island.
The author’s narrative alternates between Crete and events on King. Essentially it deals with what the lone soldier had to do to survive – that is murder, man and beast. He assists, at various stages, in attacks against the invaders by the Cretan guerillas. This results in the Germans trying to counter through the auspices of repeated atrocity. It’s not pretty reading. It’s been likened to Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, but decidedly, for this reader, doesn’t have nearly the same impact. That being stated, some of what half-addled Wes does to ensure he stays living is truly terrible – and in some cases, terribly futile. But on the Bass Strait island time is on his side to try and come to terms with it all.
Leonie Fermoy, a generationally entrenched islander, has some forgetting to do too. She is wayward and perhaps she is a tad mad as well. Before Wes can convince her to love him he must unburden himself – open out to her the darker side that shrouds his mind. He’s hoping the King Island weather will leach it all out of him and that she’ll take care of the rest. Tentatively, in fits and starts, the pair come together – and the telling of it is terrific wordsmithery.
Gregory Day lives on a spot just sixty-four kilometres north of the Bass Strait island he writes about in this tome. He’s a frequent visitor and he loves the place – is transfixed by it. And I have been too, these days, by the aforementioned location of my son’s residence – by a place also attuned to the briny. We are so lucky that our island, in the southern seas, affords such bolt holes where nature is in balance with the incursions of mankind. Wes found it led to his salvation.