Almost Everything You Should Know About Fiction Written in English

“Gilgamesh” by Joan London  (2001) – 256 pages

Writers from various nations write various types of fiction.  Here is almost everything you should know about fiction written in English.

 Writers from England will give you stories told in smooth  refined Royal fashion.  If you want just the opposite, read Irish writers.  Writing from Scotland is crude, lewd, and rude. United States writers will lie or mislead if there is any money in it for themselves.  But Australian writers will always tell the blunt ugly truth even if it hurts.   The Candian writers are quite lucky that I still haven’t figured out where they fit in.

Ever since I read “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony” by Henry Handel Richardson, I’ve known this truth about Australian novels.  In that novel, Richard Mahony is a respected doctor in a small Australian village who  goes insane in his thirties as the result of the syphilis he had contracted when he was young.   Richardson explores in excruciating detail his aberrant bizarre behavior resulting from his dementia and the severe effects it has on his family, the neighborhood’s ostracism of the family, and so on.  The doctor’s patients soon all drop away, and the family is reduced to poverty.  Henry Handel Richardson later wrote that the character Richard Mahony was based on her own father.

 “How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.”

                                                           Henry Handel Richardson

At the beginning of  the novel “Gilgamesh” by Joan London, Frank meets Ada in London.   They get married and move to Western Australia to start up a farm.  In the hands of a United States novelist or more likely scriptwriter, this would be the heartwarming story of a loving couple bravely fighting the odds to conquer the Australian wilderness, meanwhile raising a perfectly adorable family.  In the hands of Australian writer Joan London, Ada can’t ‘take the life’ and soon retreats into her own world spending her time wandering around the house talking to herself.  The two daughters Frances and Edith mostly have to raise themselves.   Frank expresses his disgust with Ada more than a few times.   “Gilgamesh” is a real Australian novel.

Much of “Gilgamesh” is taken up with the incredible journey of 19 year-old daughter Edith and her toddler son Jim to Armenia.  On the way there they stop in London to visit relatives.  I would argue that even though Western Australia is much farther from London, Armenia is the more remote place.   For one thing, Armenia, in southwestern Asia, is landlocked, so one travels by land to get there.  For another, all writing in Armenia is in Cyrillic script, and to me Cyrillic script is the most obscure thing in the world.

“I don’t believe you, Madge said.  “Where is Armenia again?” …Word got around, but nobody really believed that Edith had gone to Armenia.  Wherever on earth that was.  More likely she had taken up with some fancy man she met in the hotel.  She was a ruined girl.  They supposed she would never come back  It was as if she were dead.”

No, Edith and her little boy Jim really did go to Armenia, by bus, by ship, by train.   I want to say a few words about the writing style of Joan London in “Gilgamesh”.  The entire novel is written in blunt matter-of-fact short sentences that always convey the tough truths.  In this novel, the reader has no idea what will happen next, and the succinct objective writing style of Joan London supports this effect.

Don’t let the title “Gilgamesh” dissuade you from reading this novel.  True there are some references to the epic poem ‘Gilgamesh’, the oldest known poem written over 4500 years ago in Iraq.  However this is very much a modern novel which will leave you impressed with the style and honesty of Joan London.


4 responses to this post.

  1. “But Australian writers will always tell the blunt ugly truth even if it hurts.”

    I think you have also summed up the Australian character, Tony! 🙂


  2. Hi Kimbofo,
    Thanks for stopping by. The fictions of any nation are probably too varied to be covered by any over-simplifying generalities, but I do find Australian literature in general more involving and interesting than most. And writers like Joan London, Tim Winton, and M J Hyland are keeping up the grand tradition.


  3. Oh, Tony, this is one of my very favourite books and one I yearn to reread again, primarily because of the writing style. It’s spare and delicious. You may have followed my Meanjin Tournament of Books posts in which Gilgamesh fronted Garner’s The children’s Bach in the finale. It didn’t win but the fact that it got that far says something about its quality I reckon.


  4. Hi WG,
    Yes, I did read your article about where Gilgamesh beat out the other novels to win that Tournament. That and a very nice review by Tracey at A Book Sanctuary caused me to read Gilgamesh. And, yes, from the earliest sentences the simple style captured me


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