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Susan’s Bookshelves: Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Whenever I’m in touch – and that’s quite often – with my dear old college friend who lives in Brisbane, we always swap a few book titles, just as we did almost daily when we were students together. And, as a bonus, she often mentions titles by Australian authors which have slipped beneath my radar in the UK.  Our tastes are quite similar so I usually buy her suggestions and am rarely disappointed and I certainly wasn’t with this powerful, poignant, intelligent novel.

Limberlost was published last year and is newly available in paperback. I read it on Kindle. Arnott, wrote it during his year as writer-in-residence at University of Tasmania and the island state provides the setting for his novel. I have been to Tasmania and, even today after decades of global industrialisation, it remains a remote place with more “wilderness”, as the Australians call it, than anywhere I’ve ever been. Conservation is now carefully managed and in Tasmania I saw more wildlife, casually in the wild than I’ve seen anywhere else – an echidna feeding on the roadside grass verge, a wombat near our cabin door and pandemelons cavorting in the snow for example.

And that sense of nature thrums through Limberlost which is set in the 1940s – when Tasmanian devils were still present in high numbers and you could hear them at night. Today they are affected by a rare form of cancer, unusual in that’s it’s contagious, and the only ones I saw were in a sanctuary. Ned is growing up in northern Tasmania in the 1940s, the youngest of four. His mother died when he was a baby. His father is a strange, unpredictable, distant man, His two older brothers have gone to war and his sister is the only female figure in his life apart from his best friend’s sister in the next valley. The main industry is farming – specifically orchard fruits but it’s vey hard to make a living.

Haunted by the memory of seeing, in infancy, something mysterious from a boat, Ned hankers for a boat of his own. He yearns for, and reflects on,  things he can’t understand and the boat dream represents that. Eventually he acquires one but not before he has accidentally injured a quoll and secretly nursed it back to life. The animal becomes a symbol for the inner turmoil the boy often feels and but can’t fathom. At one level he is desperately worried about his conscripted brothers but there’s much more to it than that.

It’s a double narrative. In parallel with the account of his teenage years we also see Ned married with a family and making a reasonable success of his life and there’s a hint towards the end that we are seeing the whole of his life from a present day point of view.

Arnott is good at lyrical prose without it ever feeling self-conscious. He really does evoke the sounds, smells, sights and feel of what Tasmania must once have been like and of Ned slowly experiencing the changes. When he visits his daughters at the university, for instance, one of them turns on him quite viciously and berates him about the theft of all the land in Tasmania from the indigenous people – and suddenly I’m back in The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (2000). Yes, there’s plenty to think about here.

Limberlost is a succinct novel by 2023 standards – less than 200 pages so it can be soaked up in a day or two. Warmly recommended.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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