Gilgamesh By Joan London

An ancient fable - with power cuts
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The Independent Culture

Joan London is an Australian writer with two collections of short stories (not published here) under her belt. If only she had taken more notice of T S Eliot's tenet about returning to the beginning and knowing it for the first time, her debut novel might have been brilliant instead of just good. Never have so many characters spent so much time travelling around the globe to find such dim, hazy enlightenment. This is a literary novel with intermittent power cuts.

The central, and most frustrating, character is Edith. Her parents moved from Cricklewood to Australia in the 1920s to farm 160 acres of land drawn for them in a ballot. This is not the Australia of travel brochures, but inhospitable, hard-boiled territory with snakes and granite and sand. It's a place where cattle never thrive, and where Edith's mother hides indoors because it's marginally less frightening than it is outside. Edith's father dies, broken by the toil. And then Edith's cousin Leopold turns up from London, with his Armenian friend Aram.

The legend of Gilgamesh gives some fairly substantial clues about what will happen before the novel is over. Gilgamesh is the fabled king of Mesopotamia, said to have lived about 3000BC. He sets off in search of wisdom, with his greatest friend, the wild man Enkidu, but the gods decree that the two men have become arrogant and that Enkidu must die.

Leopold and Aram stay with Edith, her sister Frances and their mother. Once they have left, Edith discovers she is pregnant. To underline the savagery of Edith's Australia, she's instructed to have her baby at a hospital run by the plump, nun-like Matron Linley, aided by the saintly Dr Bly. But, as Edith gives birth she sees, in a malign distortion of a Beryl Cook painting: "Matron... bending over the delivery table... Dr Bly reached out his hand and jabbed his finger between her ample buttocks." It's no surprise then that Edith has to flee from the hospital with her baby son Jim, before Matron seizes him. "Australia was a place where they tried to take away your children."

Edith becomes obsessed with the idea of travelling to Armenia to find Aram, even though she's not sure how to get there. The fact that it's 1939 doesn't help. Edith trails around the globe, via London, Southampton, Istanbul and Georgia before reaching Yerevan. For a young, naïve, uneducated, desperately poor woman with a young baby, it's a miracle she gets there at all. But this is really where the novel's troubles begin. Once she gets to Armenia, she settles for a foreign replica of what she had before, but this time living with an elderly poet and a disabled singer. "Three women. She had re-created what she had left." Home in Gilgamesh is somewhere to escape from, but the place where you're going turns out to be the same as the place you have left. When Edith returns to Australia she sees the spire of the Anglican Church which had once evoked thoughts of Armenia, and she realises that it is a "fabled mountain paradise where she had never been".

I don't take issue with the characters' lack of wisdom. They're entitled to be as small-minded as they like. But does Joan London have to take us on such a fruitless trip too? Her writing gleams and shimmers like the finest golden thread. It's a pity that some of her ideas are as pedestrian as a walk round the block.

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