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A Trilogy of Unsettlement : THE GRISLY WIFE, By Rodney Hall (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $20; 261 pp.)

August 29, 1993|RICHARD EDER

With "The Grisly Wife," Rodney Hall completes a trilogy that must be one of the most curious of national epics. His three novels about the settlement of Australia, spanning the 19th Century, speak in terms very different from those of the American epic of immigrants who find their destiny in a new continent.

They are told from the point of view not of the settlers but of the continent. Unable to expel them, it poisons and distorts them. They are extraplanetary aliens whose imported air supply will run out and who, forced to breathe an atmosphere with another chemical makeup, will swell and turn monstrous. Robert Frost wrote that "the land was ours before we were the land's," and evoked an American imagination "realizing itself vaguely westwards." Were Hall to attempt an equivalent, he would write of a land invaded and possessed but refusing to take possession of its possessors. His Australian imagination, far from realizing itself, maddens itself westward.

"Captivity Captive," the first of the trilogy to be written and chronologically the last, is an unearthly, violent story of a farmer family, and culminates in three terrible killings. Unearthly, even though it is the most gritty and realistic of the three, its passions are those of the blood, but it is blood hopped-up with demons out of the air and landscape. "The Second Bridegroom," set early in the 19th Century, brings a rebellious British printer to Australia as a transported convict. He escapes to run with an aborigine clan, his Western intellect is undermined, and the narrative, which includes a murder and a massacre, is itself undermined into hallucinatory spookiness.

"The Grisly Wife" picks up an echo of "Bridegroom" at the start, and a foreshadowing of "Captivity" at the end. It is less bloody than either--there is a killing but it is almost an accident--and a current of sardonic humor runs through it. It has its own wildness, though; a hysteria that is ostensibly lodged in its characters but fanned and twisted by the place they settle in. And it spreads to the reader. Here, even more than in the other books, Hall displays his gift for making us jumpy by the elliptical giving and withholding of connections. As he constructs the fictional house we are to inhabit, he drills a curious pattern of holes in its supports. We collapse into the haunted world of his characters, only to be pulled up by the voice of the narrator which, when it is not lost and floating, is disenchantedly aground.

The narrator's name is Catherine Byrne. In 1898, at the age of 48, she tells a police inspector the strange story of the charismatic community that came over with her from England 30 years before. It was led by John Heaps, a tanner in the West Country, with its long nonconformist religious tradition. Catherine, daughter of a comfortable Church of England vicar, shocked her family by marrying Heaps and emigrating with him to Australia, along with eight other middle-class women whom he calls his Hidden Stars.

Prophesying and awaiting the Second Coming, Heaps takes the name Muley Moloch, and settles his female followers on a farm in New South Wales. Most of them have one or another kind of physical or mental handicap; they live excitably but more or less prosperously, working hard, avoiding their neighbors and eventually succumbing one by one to tuberculosis.

Much to Catherine's frustration, Muley remains chaste until she contracts tuberculosis herself (she is the only one to recover). Lying half-conscious, she thinks she sees a snaky white root erupt from the ground; nine months later she gives birth to a boy. She and Muley, for different reasons, insist that the child is Christ reborn, and name him Immanuel.

At 12, told of his supposed glory, Immanuel has a nervous breakdown and runs away. Catherine blandly insists he is with his heavenly Father. Muley, charisma gone and every bit the West Country tanner, exclaims that, by God, he is the father, and organizes a search. It is fruitless and worse; Muley hysterically shoots dead an old hermit with whom Immanuel had taken refuge, and the boy disappears into the bush. Muley renounces his mission and resumes his name and tanner's trade. The women expel him from the community.

Catherine's story weaves back and forth from her English childhood to her life with the Hidden Stars. Its narrative is crisscrossed and broken up; her voice is witty and disenchanted, angry or mournful, or dreamy and speculative. It proceeds with gaps, with references to events we are to hear about later and sometimes don't, with mysteries that resolve into others that don't resolve. Her account is a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces that never turn up; and others that turn up and fit nowhere.

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