Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A Year in Books 2011 - The Trout Opera




When I think of  great Australian novels that I've read and by great I dont mean in terms of quality of writing but more ones that say as much about the country as its characters, I get as far as Peter Carey's Illywhacker and that is about it.

However, Matthew Condon's The Trout Opera pushes it close.  Centurian Wilfred Lampe has been chosen to appear at the Sydney Olympic's opening ceremony as a living representative of the country's history. However, things dont quite go to plan and Wilfred ends up an almost prisoner in a hosptial while the Olympic pr team start to fret about what they've got themselves into. It is here that Wilfred looks back on his 100 years of life during which time he never moves from the river that he loved.

With such a small stage I was worried that I'd be reading a 700 page opus detailing the joys of nature and particularly of fishing (with apologies to all anglers, something that attracts me as much as setting up an ant farm or breeding guinea pigs).

This fear never materialises for a number of reasons, the skill Condon shows in painting small town life and the dramas big and small that fall on Wilfred and his neighbours as well as when the wider world impacts the town of Dalgety such as a the body of a friend brought back from the first world war, or the men of science exploring the local mountain ranges

The biggest reason is that Wilfred's memories of the Bush are contrasted with modern day Australia and an ex junkie Aurora , recovering from the death of her baby and on the run from her abusive drug addict partner.

Both Aurora and Wilfreds worlds bring tradegy however the feeling is that those in modern world are more self inflicted, whilst in the Wilfreds world they are like the ever present snowy river, just part of the natural movement of life

Condon populates both worlds with a series of eccentric characters with situations ranging from the comic of the boy Wilfred's appearance in a school opera to the moving death of his father.

Gradually the lives of Wilfred and Aurora start to converge and as the saga comes to an end their shared history emerges.

If I made it sound  as a simple waring to the dangers of progress then I've over simplified things, overall it is a celebration of Australia.

If I were to have one misgiving it would be the end is just a tad too neat. Overall Trout Opera is a great read but  it lacks what made Illywhacker so good , the lightness is never as strong as the dark and some of the set pieces feel, good as they are, like a missed opportuntiy. There isnt the humour to balance the adversity just love and family (which I guess is more than enough).

 You can buy Trout Opera here

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