Review of Philomena van Rijswijk's The World as a Clockface (2001)
Penguin, 406 pp, RRP $19.95
Philomena van Rijswijk's third book is set in Esmania, a triangular island off the larger land mass of Incognita and is concerned with the wanderings of Mrs Lavinia Chomsky and her three pale children. The central metaphor of the narrative is the redrawing of the world as a disk with the South Pole at the centre and surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the 'silent, phantom world of ice and snow.' ('If I drew a map, it would look like the face of a clock, with the South Pole at the centre,' said Captain Holmann Schuyler). Mrs Chomsky runs away from the boredom of marriage and a small island and travels the seas with Captain Schuyler, in the ship, The King of Iceland. She has many adventures and tells and hears lots of wondrous tales.
This is the fabulous world of magic realism where cruelty, death and love rub side by side with the extremes of the natural world. There is much that will be familiar to Tasmanians, especially the preoccupation with the sea, whaling and boats; as well the fact that many of the stories are based on Tasmanian history and myth. However, as the book goes on, the stories get stranger and more bizarre as when the Whaler's Gate puppeteers wander off to the desert in search of husband and sons and find an iceberg mountain that has been dragged from the southern ocean and causes the dry land to blossom as it melts.
The book structure is divided loosely into four quarters, beginning with what appears to be the late nineteenth century. Van Rijswijk says the motif is the sea and 'the sea carries the story around [so that] ... the stories are circular.'
The prose is rich, beautifully written and van Rijswijk leaves the weirdness of the plot without adornment, to tell the story. This is very effective and gives the writing a power of its own. Like most writing of the fabulous, character development is simple and the reader is left in no doubt as to the motives of individuals. The strange names of the characters (Day-Lea Bread, Mocassins Thoreau and Darkie Sweet) are self-explanatory and allow the peculiarities of plot to develop without interruption.
The World as a Clockface is a world where women and children are predominant and the pursuit of love, birth, the suckling of children and sometimes animals, is the main preoccupation. But then, this is a world that what has been marginalised, becomes central and what was at the bottom, now sits on top.
This is a fairly long book but the prose carries the reader along on often, beautifully understated writing, that is lighthearted, amusing and frequently joyful. There is much to enjoy and discover in the telling.
Philomena van Rijswijk grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney and in 1984 moved with her husband and children to Tasmania. She lives near Cygnet and now writes full time. She has published a book of poetry, Trail of Bones and Godstones and a novel, The Time it Rained Fish with Esperance Press.
It is exciting to observe the journey of a writer who was first nurtured and published by a small community press.