Review: 'The Time It Rained Fish',
by Philomena van Rijswijk

Esperance Press, Dover, Tasmania 7117 (1999)

(ed. Edith Speers as part of the series Writers of the Huon)

Philomena van Rijswijk-cover The Time It Rained Fish spans five generations and involves a family curse. To have set a course over such hazardous terrain was a brave move, and on the whole, despite my feeling that she has tried to fit too much in, Philomena van Rijswijk has come out pretty much unscathed.

The moment you set eyes on this book you are disconcerted. The brash greens, oranges and purples of Margaret Kirk's cover have a naive directness, yet clearly there's more. A fish is rammed into the ground. If it has been rained there, as the title suggests, then this is our first inkling of a helpless and unwilled connection with the earth. A lyrical and compelling prologue invites us into a world teeming with life – life itself – which proves to be simultaneously "a joy and a burden".

This is the story of Elly, brought up in seedy and rapidly-changing suburbs around Sydney, a lost and aimless woman. Considered "bland", she is virtually friendless, with a fearful mother who sees death everywhere, and a dysfunctional alcoholic father. The novel is criss-crossed with the story of Ellen Barry, her Irish forbear, whose shadow gradually catches Elly up and overtakes her. In the opening chapter she is watched by her ancestor through the steam on the bathroom mirror: history is your reflection, and therefore inescapable.

As a girl, Elly succumbs to the habit of loneliness and self-absorption. She "can touch her loneliness. She has found a way to its place in herself. Other people may perfect other things..." Colourless and sexually alienated, she leaves home – in a rare decisive moment – but her life is a series of dead ends. She moves several times, searching in run-down flats and in a borrowed house in the Blue Mountains for meaning. Possibilities for self-revelation arrive: her baby Sophia, conceived on one of those occasions when "girls are playing dead for the local boys", Rainforest, a hippie who, like her, is detached and passionless and whom she almost married, and finally Schlek, a writer, who arouses in her a measure of desire. But this last relationship shrivels also. Her moments of greatest happiness and desire are with women, but fulfilment eludes her. She drifts through the novel, ending up in Tasmania, where her ancestor Ellen resurfaces. There her one source of contentment, growing vegetables, is denied her by the cold and damp, and she wastes into old age and mental vacuity.

Ellen may be bruised by indifference – "the boys she knew moved through their lives, while she waited", and she doesn't do any kind of work – yet she is all antennae, profoundly attached by her senses to the natural world. And in a tendency which is traceable to the burying of an ancestral placenta, she has a recurring desire to return to the earth by eating it – "the gravel on the frozen road... the things underfoot. Slimy bridges, oozing mud, salt on the tide."

Ellen Barry, who leaves a family embroiled in a struggle over land to enter a Carmelite convent, is a more forthright, more passionate and more attractive character than her Australian counterpart, although her story too is tragic. Seen largely through the device of Ellen's diary, the Irish story is fresh and vital. The novel is based on van Rijswijk's family history and it does feel authentic; the Irish idiom is natural and charming, revealing an intimate knowledge of its forms and rhythms.

The narrative thread is looped rather than linear. It is an intricately-structured novel, the sections on Ellen Barry dovetailing neatly with the contemporary story, and a lovely contemplative depth is given by the quotations which begin each section. It can become unwieldy though, with three characters called Ellen and four known as James or Jimmy. I was occasionally confused and found myself wishing for a family tree. However, the clever layout does take care of this – the Irish sections are printed with ragged margins, which helps to differentiate between Ellens. I would have been frustrated without this at the beginning.

Van Rijswijk is rightfully making a name for herself as a poet, and her poetic instincts – for both the visceral and the aesthetic – are strong. The language is a joy: symbolically rich, with imagery that is penetrating but not paraded or inflated. There are some rhapsodic passages. Van Rijswijk is also skilled at feeding the reader's curiosity by not revealing too much. Very little is known of the physical appearance of the characters, for example, while the unfolding of the family history is smooth and unobtrusive.

The evocative power of the novel can be startling, particularly the experience of an Australian Catholic youth in the 50s and 60s: the 'dry musty' nuns with their spiritual manipulation and fear tactics, the shabby streetscapes with their featureless houses. In this child's world, you ate crumbed cutlets and "hard vanilla ice-cream forced into cones", carried a Globite schoolcase, used an outdoor dunny, walked barefoot on linoleum, emptied the teapot under the bushes. Unfortunately it sometimes reads as a chronicle of the times and does, as they say, show its research underwear. Background events, the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975, for example, appear to be plonked in simply to give stability to the social setting, lacking any significance for the business of the novel. Occasionally, too, there is an anomaly, a little looseness – there's no evidence that Elly is a great reader, for instance, (except of magazines), yet she looks for Patrick White's house on a visit to Sydney.

There is very little dialogue and what there is, is skeletal. On one level, this is consistent with Ellen's character, since she merely goes through the motions of human interaction, but the result is a lack of immediacy, of the small concrete details that allow you to live inside characters. For me, there is too much tell and not enough show, the first sustained stretch of dialogue being thirty pages in. Dialogue between the Australian characters is rather wooden and formulaic, making them 'sound the same'. Some compensation for this is made by the interpolation of passages in the second person, however, which does allow freer entry to the characters' consciousness.

This is a fatalistic novel, one which confronts us with immense mysteries and terrible burdens. Our dead will not leave us alone, and neither will the land we are born to. There is nothing romantic or wistful about it, and there can be nothing redemptive, since the two Ellens are robbed of choice by the Bauravilla curse. The curse is an undertow, pulling them back into the past and down into the earth. There is no sense of moving on, of learning from experience. That the curse should explain Elly's indifference and the shapelessness of her life is somehow dissatisfying. Elly is consumed by waiting to be awakened, rejecting even hope as a destructive force: "She has always thought it strange that optimism should be considered a virtue. Hope is like a poison that will not leave your body...To avoid pain. Ha! One of those lousy sheep might just as easily avoid wool...it comes from under their skin".

For all its defeatism and for all the excruciating isolation suffered by both its protagonists, The Time It Rained Fish is an impressive, atmospheric novel. Though the two Ellens never grow into their own meaning – and you know quite early on that Elly becomes "as old as granite. Never changing, just eroding day by day. One day she will be a handful of sticky silt" – these two characters are oddly companionable. It is in the end an uncomfortable reading experience, because it doesn't provide any form of affirmation. Uncomfortable, however, doesn't mean unpleasurable. Never once did I want to stop reading. The problems I experienced with it may well be typical of first novels, and so I look forward very much to van Rijswijk's second novel, due out in Penguin next year.