Monday, 26 June 2017

Frozen: Let It Go

Ice by Louis Nowra

(Allen & Unwin) Pp. 322

In the 1880s British entrepreneurs Malcolm McEachern and Andrew McIlwraith tow an iceberg to Sydney and introduce locals to ice. It goes down a treat, but as the iceberg melts, the frozen body of a young sailor is found within it. Malcolm is lost in grief for the death of his wife, Ann, and he attempts to preserve her memory. A parallel story is narrated by a young man who takes over his partner’s research work (she was writing a biography of Malcolm McEachern) after she is frozen in a coma. Images and metaphors of arresting time resound throughout the novel.

Early Sydney comes alive through the impressions of the young men as they first arrive. It is a character in itself, defying description and confounding assumptions; full of possibilities as people flee the Old World and try to reinvent themselves in a land of opportunities. Malcolm is always chasing the latest business venture: he brings refrigerated meat from Australia to London, electricity to Melbourne and order to the Tokyo electric tram system. He is attracted to what he calls Australia’s “dirty prism of classless democratic optimism” which allowed him to succeed in business.

Malcolm is clearly a man’s man, dismissing women as inferior and the representation of women within the novel is astoundingly weak. Malcolm’s mother remarries and excludes him from her life, and his second wife, Mary, is unkindly portrayed as some sort of harpy, despite the fact that his treatment of her is appalling. He mourns his first wife, Ann, building her a mausoleum – a weird subterranean world of bottled embryos – and Mary disappears into the background to lead a separate life.

The telling of Malcolm’s story is full of things that biographers could not have known but must have imagined; as the tale proceeds the narrator becomes increasingly unreliable. Ann dies, which is convenient, because live women are so messy, and Malcolm is distraught, but is the narrator talking about himself or about Malcolm? “Until he’d married her he had been unloved and she had awoken love in him, as surely as if it were a delicious, sweet emerging from melting ice. She had given him a purpose, a sense that he was human and loving, but a callous God had snatched her away from him, scooped his insides out and rendered him hollow.”

The references to being frozen in form and time are both literal and metaphoric as the lines between subject and biographer blur. The frigid purity of ice is contrasted with the warm sensuality of the body. Malcolm makes a wax effigy of Ann and keeps it in his catacombs where he builds a room for her and visits her for necrophiliac purposes. “It was as if she was frozen, like the perfectly preserved American sailor excavated from the iceberg.” The similarities with the drug – “the drug that ruined your life and mine” – are not accidental.

Malcolm’s time is one of great change and discovery and he himself is a man of science and technology. The scientific developments of the age – X-rays; atoms; telephones; electricity – become confused with spiritualism and mesmerism because “The boundaries between the possible and impossible were quickly narrowing at an astonishing pace.” Mary believes that, “Scientists belong in the darkness of their laboratories, not in the bright light of society.” Darkness and secrecy, however, lead to obsession and madness, which will always be revealed when exposed to the light.

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