Monday, August 15, 2011

Dream of the thylacine

Two years ago I took a plane to Hobart and then a drive down to Huonville, there to meet Ron Brooks, one of Australia's finest book illustrators. I travelled with Sarah Brenan, Ron's editor. At the time Ron was finishing his memoir Drawn From the Heart, which covers his life in books. I wrote about that visit here.

Throughout this year I have been contributing book reviews to Viewpoint, a quarterly magazine on young adult literature. The current issue includes this review of The Dream of the Thylacine, the latest collaboration between author Margaret Wild and illustrator Ron Brooks.

 In recent times it almost seems Ron Brooks’s picture books have been offered as rations, the patient readership grateful that there one more book is added to the canon. There is the generous, revealing and invaluable memoir Drawn From the Heart. And if it has been a while between picture books, still have the inexhaustible legacy of those books that made Brooks’s name and reputation as Australia’s finest picture book maker. The Bunyip of Berkeley Creek prepares to celebrate 40 weird and wonderful years, while John Brown, Rose and Midnight Cat (both texts by Jenny Wagner) remains as mysterious and affecting after 35 years. Children may grow up quickly, but great children’s picture books endure.

For Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2000) Brooks created a set of searing images to depict Margaret Wild’s story of trust, betrayal and hope. Likewise, Old Pig, again the text by Margaret Wild, speaks not only of the vulnerable child, but to the knowing adult and to all readers that have lost a parent, a grandparent.

“Who in the world am I?” wonders Alice as she navigates life down the rabbit hole. The bunyip echoes with a question of his own: “What am I?”

What kind of creature was the thylacine? The unfortunate animal is no longer here for us to ask any such probing, so such questions will remain forever moot.

Dream of the Thylacine sits somewhere between the lyricism of Old Pig and the raw power of Fox. Indeed the book swings between two worlds: the Edenic landscapes of Tasmania where the thylacine made its natural home, and the stark, punishing world the zoo, where the last known thylacine died in captivity. Either way, score one more masterpiece into a catalogue crowded with them.

The thylacine is the most lamented, ironically the most celebrated, of Australia’s extinct fauna. We have a right to feel angry about this slaughter, not just misty-eyed. It’s pleasing the Brooks’s treatment of the story invites the reader to feel raw emotions, not merely the approved emotions. But what animals will pass from sight in our lifetime?

                        Trapped am I,
                        in a cage of twisty wire, cold concrete.

Brooks has not only created vivid, bristling landscapes. He has also set the text, re-built the simple words so that they grab the reader as pulsing Beat poetry. I like the way the text has been condensed, thickened up, made strong, in this design. It would have be too obvious and too easy to parcel those couplets evenly across the book. This way, the poetry comes roaring to life, the white text is embedded onto stark, monochromatic backgrounds. What might have been a lament becomes a howling rage against the dying light. The image of the thylacine on thext pages is the familiar one: the trapped, dying animal, viewed through wire. The image is degraded, like a fourth-hand photocopy, breaking down like memory. The background on which the bold typeface is impressed, offers another layer of meaning: the weathered timber of farm sheds inverts the pioneer myth. Here the buildings are not signs of progress and expansion but repression and ultimately destruction.

This text never appears on the colour pages, but remains segregated, trapped, as it were, in this world. There is no comfortable fantasy of the animal at one with nature. The landscape is already empty: the last known thylacine recalls the landscape from the cage in which it will die. And this also closes off the clich├ęd possible that somewhere out there...

The text is also an invitation for Ron Brooks to paint the landscapes of Tasmania that he knows so well. This stark, desperate introduction does give way to the thylacine moving across its native space. The thylacine’s body is sleek and stylised; you just want to stroke its stripy back.

                 See me swagger across the wild lands...see me glory at the edge of cliff

But this swagger is halted. Everywhere there are limits.

There is an essential drama in the book, that as the trapped thylacine becomes more abject the landscapes, the places of which it dreams and remembers and longs to escape into, become more seductive, more dreamlike, more enchanting.

The poet Auden wrote that "There are good books which are only for adults. There are no good books which are only for children." The Dream of the Thylacine is a book for readers of every age. Teenagers might well respond to its Romanticism. One of the pages in the final is of a bleak mountainside; a scene split by a rainbow, which softens the experience but can’t entirely efface the existential mood. Because I think this is a book about loss and enchantment. It is about finding consolation in place, in the physical world, the same physical world from which the thylacine has been taken.