Book Review: Sea Of Many Returns

By David Hill

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Sea Of Many Returns by Arnold Zable
Text, $28

Sea of Many Returns by Arnold Zable. Photo / Supplied
Sea of Many Returns by Arnold Zable. Photo / Supplied

"The story you are about to be told is a fairy tale ... sit back and become a child again."

This new novel from Wellington-born, Melbourne-based Arnold Zable is also much concerned with identity and dislocation, across nine decades and four generations of a Greek family from Ithaca, the island to which Odysseus returned after 20 years of absence.

In many ways it's a reworking of Homer's narrative, from several viewpoints, and with much more attention paid to the women who wait and endure while men voyage and (often) neglect.

At the start of the 20th century, brothers Manoli and Andreas have built a boat on which they ferry passengers across the Ionian Sea and explore the world beyond their island. As they sail, they wait for their father Mentor to return from Australia.

The story follows Mentor, Manoli and others as they move between the old world and new. Some find fulfilment, others exile. Some accept one country, others deny both.

We hear mostly from Mentor, who leaves Ithaca for Kalgoorlie and Melbourne, and from his grand-daughter Xanthe, when she returns to Greece. Xenophobia in World War I Australia, the building of the Kalgoorlie-Port Augusta railroad, the growth of Melbourne's Greek community, the Balkan Wars and the World Wars - "every generation has ways of devouring its young" - all of these feature as characters seek or spurn where they belong.

They're people "cursed with a craving for departures and arrivals, condemned to live for the sight of islands receding and horizons beckoning". They inhabit a natural world of powerfully evoked seas, storms, mountains, which still has room for gods or saints to intervene, and for dreams and prophecies to pack the plot. The writing resonates with Homeric imagery and cadences: "the seas are seething with blood and the watery graves of its victims ... war is the wildest wind contained in the ox-skin bag". Narrators and narratives are emblematic, heraldic. Virtually every object and action is metaphorical: a rust-stained apartment building, ants on a burning log, a Volvo on a jetty. It makes for - dare I? - a certain monotony of tone.

Physical and emotional landscapes are depicted meticulously, skilfully. High literary ground and high philosophical ground are staked out early. Homer and Zable don't nod much in this novel. They don't smile much, either: solemnity and portentousness pervade all.

It's an impressive piece of writing. It's subtle, sensitive, significant, slightly soporific. Rewarding? Undoubt- edly. Engrossing? Intermittently.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

- NZ Herald

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