TEXT review

Intensely credible fiction

review by Nigel Krauth


Glenda Guest
A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline
Text Publishing, Melbourne 2018
ISBN 9781925603262
Pb 206pp AUD29.99


I will say at the outset that I was principal supervisor for Glenda Guest’s PhD novel Siddon Rock (2006) which subsequently won the world-wide Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book (2010) and was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award, short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Prize Best First Book (the Glenda Adams Award) and for other prizes. So why am I writing this review? Surely there is a conflict of interest. Actually, I am concerned about how many PhD candidates make it as writers, how many publish beyond their doctoral work without supervisory attention, and how many make careers beyond academia. The pages of TEXT seem the ideal place for a review taking this perspective.

A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline is set in the present and traces the eponymous character’s memories back to the 1970s, and earlier. Cassie grew up on a wheatbelt farm in Western Australia. In her late teens, after an event she prefers not to remember too closely, she left home and travelled to Sydney. There she forged a career as a successful theatre actor and subsequently a university drama teacher. When the novel opens, she has been diagnosed with oncoming Alzheimer’s disease by a Macquarie Street doctor. The shock is such that she decides she needs to get her memories in order before she loses them entirely, which involves booking a train trip on the Indian-Pacific across the Australian continent, retracing her life back to her roots.

Most of the novel takes place on the train and follows her anxious thinking about who she is and how her past has informed the woman she has become. Significantly, for a literary novel about a normal middle-aged woman’s review of her life, this story becomes entirely surprising and gripping – the reader wants desperately to know what Cassie will find out about herself from unveiling the key concerns that stand between her and her moral equanimity, especially the central issue that will allow her to finalise her judgment of herself.

Other reviewers have placed Guest’s work in national and international contexts. I am interested in looking at this novel from my knowledge of how she wrote her PhD creative submission, Siddon Rock. For Siddon Rock, Guest created a fictional town in the Western Australian wheatbelt. She focused on the establishment of the town and on a set of pioneering town characters. Because she researched magic realism for the novel, and wrote an exegesis on it, I always thought of Siddon Rock as an Australian version of Garcia Marquez’s fictional town Macondo. In Siddon Rock, the environment acts in peculiar ways and the townspeople’s inner lives cause enigmatic behaviours. The strange but ultimately believable events that besiege the town demonstrate how fiction – with its ability to step around conventional thinking about reality – can show us who we really are and how poorly equipped we are to understand ourselves through orthodox ideas.

This novel, A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline, involves the same town from Guest’s first novel, but does not name it. The reference is carried in Cassie’s surname – she is a descendant of the founder of Siddon Rock, George Aberline. But also, she is heir to issues and events of the kind explored in the original work. I don’t want to give the plot away, but Cassie’s major moral problem involves her youthful love affair with a twin from a neighbouring wheatbelt farm – Coe Blanchard, who is killed in the Vietnam war. Coe’s brother Dion returns from the war and marries Cassie’s sister Helen. But was it Dion who came back?

This sequel to a PhD novel reveals an author continuing to hone her skills after graduation. With Siddon Rock, the manuscript which underwent successful examination was worked quite a way further with publishers’ editors before publication; it is a matter for debate whether the original MS would have won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Guest’s diligence and persistence in refining her vision of a town and sharpening her perspective on its characters was exhausting for her, but clearly paid dividends. She stuck to an original vision of a region – a well-spring of ideas with national cultural significance – and put in the hard yards to penetrate, clarify and extend that richly perceived landscape, as evidenced in her winning the Prize, and evidenced further in this new novel. Guest did not see her PhD novel as an end-point in her writing career, but as a beginning. Winning a major prize was a fillip to further production, but such awards can be as crippling as they are inspiring.

In my opinion, A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline embodies beautiful ideas for a novel in many respects: the journey re-crossing Australia as setting, the exploration re-crossing a life under threat from Alzheimer’s as subject matter, the sad fact that each of us is doomed not to know ourselves perfectly as conclusion. In complete awe as to where my PhD student has advanced since writing the first chapter of her first novel manuscript, I am delighted to predict that Glenda Guest is cementing her position as a major literary writer with this work. Her control in unfolding the plot is superb; her use of language, especially dialogue, is masterful and economical; the integration of character, plot, ideas, intertextual references and style is instructive. This is intensely credible and richly significant fiction.

But, of course, I may have a conflict of interest.



Nigel Krauth is professor and head of the writing program at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia. He is the co-founding General Editor of TEXT: Journal of writing and writing courses www.textjournal.com.au


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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker