The Pages, By Murray Bail

There's something philosophical hidden in the woolshed

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There are a few theories, early on in this quietly fascinating book, as to why Australia has produced no major philosophers. (It's not doing badly for novelists, and you can include Murray Bail in any list.) Australia, we read, got off to a bad start thanks to the non-intellectual bent of its first colonists. It also lacked slavery, religious oppression and a cold climate. In those chilly Northern European countries the long nights force you into contemplation. Here, "the heat and the distances between objects seem to drain the will to add words to what's already there."

So it is with some excitement that Erica Hazelhurst leaves her philosophy lecturing in Sydney to drive into the outback on a peculiar mission. Wesley Antill, who lived on a remote farm with his brother and sister for many years, writing a huge work of philosophy, has died. Now his siblings want someone to come and deliver an opinion on his output, the thousands of handwritten pages stacked in a woolshed.

Erica takes an old friend, Sophie, a psychoanalyst as impulsive as she herself is fixed in her ways. It is partly to get some perspective on her own life that Erica takes the job. Away from the city, under the steady gaze of Lindsey and Roger Antill, the women's friendship finds as much strain as clarity.

Bail's prose is as full of space and glaring, almost painful light as the landscape. He writes in hints and nudges, following the over-trained processes of Erica's brilliant mind: a detail, a stab at interpretation, a nervous scuttle back into self-absorption. This elliptical style, annoying at first, gradually finds a rhythm, especially after the awkward scenes on the homestead alternate with the story of Wesley's adventures in Europe.

This wouldn't be a novel if its characters didn't hide secrets, though in this delicate construction they appear with all the melodramatic force of a cup of tea being placed on a kitchen table. Bail's rhythm forms into a pattern, and we find we are reading twin accounts of opposing journeys: Wesley's withdrawal into a fortress of words ("To live simply and quietly is almost a philosophy," he writes), and Erica's escape from the fustiness of academia to the world of nature, albeit a sparse and barren nature. This book is as hard and sparse as that landscape, but no less beautiful for that.