Maria Freij reviews “What Came Between” by Patrick Cullen
What Came Between
by Patrick Cullen
Reviewed by MARIA FREIJ
Patrick Cullen’s first book, What Came Between, explores the life of three families in Laman Street, Newcastle in the aftermath of the 1989 earthquake, and following another incident with earth-shattering consequences for the community: the closing of the BHP steelworks ten years later. These life-changing incidents provide the framework for Cullen’s twelve interconnected stories, some of which have previously been published in Best Australian Stories, Sleepers Almanac, and Harvest. Cullen’s stories feature individuals at different stages in life and offer us an insight into the existence of very different characters, whose lives are, in one way or another, in a stage of turbulence, tragedy, or change. The earthquake becomes a trigger; cracks appear in the walls where no cracks used to be, or were they always present? The feeling of slippage runs like stormwater through the stories: involuntary childlessness, ageing, love, secrets, and guilt bob under the surface like the whale calf in Newcastle harbour, which, inevitably, is in for disaster when he crosses the surface. For the characters, the secrets and concerns continually approach the surface, but since what lies beneath will bring suffering if brought into the light, much remains necessarily and frustratingly suppressed.
Cullen’s characters are Carveresque in their working-class roots and minimalist depiction. Cullen eloquently balances the line between that which is spoken and that which must remain unsaid, showing great restraint in his narration. Newcastle features as a prominent character in the story as the city itself provides the ground upon which these characters have built their lives. When it is literally shattered, they lose their footing and their unravelling is inevitable:
Sarah got up, dragged a chair over beside the wardrobe, and reached up and ran her hand over the wall.
‘This wasn’t here before,’ she said, tracing her finger along a crack. ‘I’m sure it wasn’t.’
Paul stirred and looked up. ‘It’s always been there.’
‘Well, it’s opened up some more now. I’m sure of it.’ (p 7–8)
For Paul and Sarah, the earthquake is the beginning of a falling-apart in many ways. Just the one crack—and yet, a wealth of secrets trickle from the past into the present. Their childlessness, Paul’s previous life, and Sarah’s illness make for an intriguing depiction of the life of an ordinary yet extraordinary couple. Paul’s breakdown, though neatly restrained, means he takes time off work, his focus turned to repairing what the earthquake has shattered. As he retiles the bathroom, he is able to reconstruct the physical order of his and Sarah’s life. Still, the foundations he is trying to recreate will inevitably be affected by the lies he insists on telling his wife.
For Ray and Pam, as the closing of the steelworks leads to the suicide of an old friend, the unravelling of old lies creates a fear of loneliness and abandonment. The emotional turmoil is subtly depicted, yet the dialogue rings true: ‘Please don’t ever leave me,’ Ray says in the night, his face buried in his wife’s hair. When Ray falls ill and his estranged son returns from Sydney, some of the most human of emotions—guilt, fear, and pride—truly come to the fore, and the proud behaviour of both father and son yields to something more important as love, yet again, is proven stronger and more important.
For the young man whose grandmother, in her old age, moves from her house in Laman Street to stay with her daughter in the countryside, Newcastle is a new beginning. Indeed, his luggage is lighter than that of the street’s other inhabitants. When his young girlfriend falls pregnant, they start a new life together in the Laman Street home, and its previous owner, somewhat surprisingly and disappointingly, never features in the story again. This couple, representing the possibility of change and rejuvenation, seem less credible in actions and reactions; but this is perhaps because of the vigour with which these young people go about their existence and this, in turn, due to their youth. Still, because of the ease with which their troubles are resolved, these two characters appear least realistic: their relationship seems at threat, by the ominous owls in the attic if not by their innocence, but their love persists against the odds. It seems that in a time of chaos and uncertainty, love is still a force to be reckoned with.
Cullen’s characters’ lives are beautifully reflected in the movement around them: ‘Fruit bats crashed into the fig trees, and flapped and fought and fell away to do the same thing further along the street.’ (p 55) Cullen creates a fantastic ambience through the depiction of the city and his wonderful detail: the ‘small red figs pinballing about beneath their feet’ (p. 155) mirror the microcosm he has built, its characters at the mercy of the larger forces at hand: by the ocean, with its sprinkling of coal ships on the horizon, his characters grow apart, and come together. Cullen’s use of light and shade, in combination with the vulnerability of the characters towards the elements and nature: the earthquake, the tree roots growing into the pipes, along with these people’s love for each other and their instinct to defend their marriages, relationships, and lives make for a compelling and engaging narrative that resonates far beyond its last page.