It was the ghostly white gum and what appears to be a boat on the cover of Limberlost by Robbie Arnott that caught my attention. These images are embossed, making it a tactile thing – a book asking to be taken off the shelf. And I’m very glad I did.
Limberlost is a coming-of-age story, set predominantly over one summer when Ned hunts rabbits, hoping to sell the pelts and earn enough to buy a small boat. The pelts are required for the war effort (used to make hats for the soldiers) and with Ned’s two older brothers away at war, Ned, his sister, Maggie, and his father stay on the struggling family apple orchard, Limberlost.
He hadn’t told anyone why he was hunting rabbits—not his friends, not his father. When he eventually brought the boat home, he imagined the occasion would be a double surprise: his acquisition of such a thing, and that he’d kept his mission secret. He’d have his boat, and he’d have people’s shock at the casual totality of his competence. Two victories.
Ned lives in the shadow of those around him. His brothers are capable and brave; Maggie is practical and determined; his only friend, Jackbird, is charismatic and excitable, and Jackbird’s sister, Callie, is quiet but fearless. And then there is Ned’s father – the emotional arc of the story is driven by our need to win approval – presented as physically there, but otherwise distant. We learn early on that his father had served in WWI and returned a different man –
...he was torn apart and recast into this quiet, strange man who remained out of reach and unknowable to his own sons.
Limberlost is also a love story – yes, there’s a girl, but it’s a love story about the land, and the stories that we hold close, and that become part of our personal narrative. It is these stories that give Limberlost a particular texture. The novel opens with a tale of a whale that had ‘gone mad’ at the mouth of the river –
All day he thought of the smashed ketches and skiffs, of an unseen giant with a blade snagged in its brain. At night his dreams were flooded with blood-foamed water.
and Ned and his brothers waited for the the whale to ‘…explode out of the river and paste them into the waves.’ The theme of facing one’s fear repeats, with Ned’s attempts to save Maggie’s beloved lame horse (he describes horses as ‘…huge, storm-mouthed creatures’) and his accidental capture of a vicious quoll (‘…its mouth erupting with hissing screams and shining teeth. Its fury. Its panic.’)
In Limberlost, Arnott has relied on the traditional structure of the hero’s journey, but what sets this book apart is how he has used this structure multiple times within the same story, layering each to give the reader a deep understanding of Ned. For example, when, as an adult, Ned’s community needs a representative to travel to England to learn about new orchard management practices, it’s hardly surprising that he accepts the task.
But at the heart of this love story is the boat. I feel quite certain that Arnott is a woodworker as there’s an intimacy in his descriptions of timber (the boat and the forests where Ned works as a young adult). The descriptions are reason enough to read this book.
Yet the wood kept at him. In it Ned saw gold, saw nature, saw heaven. Wider possibilities seemed within reach in a boat that refused to hide a colour like that. He imagined it melding into the river’s morning slate, its blondness playing against the soft notes of dawn. It didn’t feel like he made the decision, the wood just insisted, and then he was holding his breath and scrubbing sandpaper down the boat’s flanks, tearing paint away in flecks and strips, an olive cloud speckling the air.
I mentioned to Lisa at ANZ Litlovers that I was in the process of writing my review of Limberlost, and she replied, “What to include? What to leave out?” It’s true. There’s so much in this relatively short novel (226pp) which is told in a straight-forward, uncomplicated style, and the reward is rich (others agree – see Lisa’s review and Kim’s review).