Book review: Garden of Sorrows

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Garden of Sorrows review

Reviewed by Kate Prendergast

Edited by Siobhan Hodge

Title: Garden of Sorrows
Author: John Hughes
Illustrator: Marco Luccio
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: UWA Publishing

In the preface to the Garden of Sorrows, John Hughes describes his book as a collection of ‘reverse fables’— in which, contrary to the ‘original impulse to break up a man into his animals’, ‘each animal is broken up into its human qualities, the human it might become’. Thus played out in the fourteen tales to follow is an intriguing inversion, where following their death, a kingdom of iconic Australian animals morph into the archetypes of humanity— merchants and healers, warriors and bards.

Implicit in the telling is that the category of the ‘natural’ is itself an invention; an artifice wrought of cultural filtering and perceptual moulding. Ironically, this entails that ‘our’ animals appear before us as always-already anthropomorphized. Undaunted and compelled by the tight convolutions that encircle man and beast, Hughes imaginatively reaches back to a mythical time, the moment before this transformation occurred. With the death of the natural the precursor to the birth of man, we are thus able to witness the miracle and tragedy of his ‘becoming’, as he is forged in an Antipodean landscape of primal suffering and loss.

Illustrating this hardcover series of melancholic tales are the mysterious, earthy and elegiac zinc-plate etchings of Melbourne-based international artist Marco Luccio. Like smoky striations, the drawings of beasts and their bones are as loose and dry as charcoal-strewn earth crumbling upon the page, seamed through with raspy, biting tangles of black line. A co-creator in the way that true illustrators always are, Luccio captures and extends each tale’s dark imagery and pathos.

Hughes was well-aware in the writing that the topsy-turvy character of the Australian outback was a perfect setting for his back-to-front fables. To our nation’s poets and story-tellers, the land has long held a grim romanticism and uncanny appeal; a place with a secret, proliferating wildness that belies its hard-baked and seemingly-empty interior. That said, the Australian fauna that are at the centre of each tale—Torment the thylacine, Hades the platypus, the crocodile Kaos (from whom the first man arose)—nonetheless attain a timelessness their own. This achieved universalism is emphasized through their allusive ties to the protagonists of classical tragedy; borrowing from their ancient and upper-world counterparts their names and, to some degree at least, their dispositions.

As each animal’s trappings sending them spiralling inexorably towards death, it becomes clear that the strengths they possess are one and the same as their frailties. Not only are they useless, then, in saving their feathery and scaly and leathery hides, but in fact they act as catalysts and seals to their fate. Often, in the manner of Attic tragedy, it is the very human weakness of hubris that serves as the master flaw. Overreaching their natures and themselves in their insatiable desires for power, status or recognition, violence awakes and swells with cancerous force, either within the creatures or the outside world, until they are at last consumed by their greed or— more tragically— their irreconcilable dreams. So Orpheus the lyrebird, with a ‘mask for a body and a mirror for a face’ becomes subsumed by his performative multiplicity, and negated in spectacle. And so the Albatross Alcestis—a creature of the in-between who can only find contentment in ceaseless flight— plunges into the ocean as a result of her restless desires and splintered love.

Thus fertilized in blood and bone, man is given shape. He pools in the imprint of sorrow as a miracle and curse; an embodied emblem of the fecundity of pain. The confluence between death and birth, however, gives him an uncertain and enigmatic incarnation. Like a dream or all-important afterthought, he often appears to us as a silent shadow, or an echo of his animal precedent.

The Garden of Sorrows is a remarkable book, exerting a fantastic, primeval and often frightening tug over the reader. Entering into its pages it is to be pulled downwards by a deep, twisting water-rope to a lair of brutal turbulence, pathos and startling grief; the bottom-most geology of the human soul. It’s a hellish kind of Eden these beasts and we inhabit, both ‘garden and inferno’, wondrous and exilic, in which Hughes explores beauty and brutality, origin and fall, seeing irony coiling endlessly within the contradictions.