“I’m deeply interested in people going ‘Wow’,” says Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor. “There’s very little in life that’s really mysterious; most things are explained. One of the things about art is that it can be mysterious and remain mysterious. And of course that relates to things in ourselves which are unfathomable.” (Rule, D. ‘Echoes and Reflection’, The Big Issue No. 427, 8-21 March 2013, p.27).
Julienne van Loon’s novella, Harmless, made me go ‘wow’ in the sense that Kapoor describes. It is a mystery to me that such a slender book can contain so much story and conjure such vast spaces, while describing lives as remote as those of a young girl from outer suburban Perth, and an ageing Thai man.
The young girl in the story is eight-year-old Amanda, whose father, Dave, is in prison. The ageing Thai man is Rattuwat, who has flown to Australia for the funeral of his daughter, Sua, who has been living with Dave, Amanda and the latter’s half-brother Ant. Rattuwat is disoriented, not only by the strange landscape in which he finds himself, but by the fact that the life Sua has painted for him in her letters bares little resemblance to the one she appears to have lived in Western Australia.
Rattuwat and Amanda are en route to a prison visit when their car breaks down on the highway out of town. Amanda wanders into the outback, too impatient to wait for the old man, impervious to her vulnerability, distracted by the loss of Sua. As the heat builds, so does the sense of menace as the two characters wander alone in search of safety.
Harmless was given to me by fellow crime writer David Whish-Wilson, who guessed rightly that van Loon’s interest in interactions between Australia and Asia would appeal to me. Cultural differences between the characters are articulated with a light, deft touch: at Sua’s funeral, for example, Rattuwat privately disapproves of Dave’s tears, concerned that this display of grief will call his daughter’s spirit back and trap her ‘in the half-world of ghosts’.
Rattuwat struggles with Amanda, too, whom he finds ‘impossible’, even as he appreciates that ‘in some way he had yet to fully understand, that little girl surely belonged to Sua’.
Harmless is not a crime novel but it unfolds like one, the slow reveal behind the characters’ motives, and particularly the fate of Sua and her relationship with Dave, creating tension and adding to the sense of mystery.
A genuine sense of mystery is not easy to pull off. Simply leaving some things unexplained can too easily leave readers unsatisfied. Articulating why some things cannot be explained is a much harder task–one that van Loon pulls off with admirable skill.
I recently read a quote attributed to Jane Austen: ‘for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.’ I’m not sure I agree. The brilliance of Harmless is for me enhanced by its brevity.
For my own part, if a book is as well written as Harmless is, I experience a mix of appreciation and loss when it comes to an end–or as Anish Kapoor would have it, an existential ‘Wow!’
Harmless by Julienne van Loon (2013) is published by Freemantle Press.