Up in the Air
In a lush debut novel from Australia, a woman loses her illusions and finds herself.
By Alexander C. Kafka
MAY 11, 1998:
THE SERVICE OF CLOUDS, by Delia Falconer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 322 pages, $23.
How ugly a beautiful dreamer can be. So learns Eureka Jones, the heroine of Delia Falconer's The Service of Clouds, an airy trip into the heart of provincial Australia in the era of the First World War.
In this lovely if sometimes overwritten first novel, Eureka, a pharmacist's assistant, has the misfortune of falling for Harry Kitchings, a photographer who, after a printing-press accident and a religious epiphany, sees God's work in the clouds. As Eureka tells us in this journal-formatted narrative, the fusion of Harry's enthusiasm and photographic artistry infects the parochial little town of Katoomba, in the Australian Blue Mountains. "Truly," Eureka writes, "we had not seen the shape of our passions until Harry Kitchings took their picture for us." And, of course, it is not long before Eureka starts to yearn for the strange, skinny, awkward photographer whose panoramic mindset contrasts so refreshingly with her dreary work routine and her home life with several eccentric, phobic, and mystically minded aunts.
Eureka tells us early on that the subsequent courtship is tepid, fruitless, and heartbreaking. Kitchings, who appears before Eureka like a genie with a lens, finds in her a woman who can appreciate his own obsessive enthusiasms. But for a wife, he ultimately finds another woman, as frail and lacy as a cloud. Worse, Kitchings robs Eureka of the wry, no-nonsense viewpoint -- what she calls her "historical eyes" -- that makes her perspective so compelling. "For I abandoned my historical eyes for Harry Kitchings," she tells us. "And now, when I recall these moments, I cannot get the seams and shadows back."
But Eureka lives up to her name twice -- once in learning to share Kitchings's transcendent outlook, and again in abandoning it for her own sadder but more original worldview when Kitchings abandons her. She earns back her historical eyes through a nursing stint at a tuberculosis sanatorium and a relationship with Les Curtain, a quirky, self-centered landscape gardener who becomes a patient there. The sanatorium, with its morbid routine and the sickly, hypersensualized mood swings that sweep the ward, is the perfect battlefield for Eureka's conflicting sensibilities. There, for Eureka as well as for her patients, sex confronts romance, optimism confronts death, and self-knowledge squares off with how the world perceives us. And like a patient who has survived a fever's crisis point, Eureka emerges a stronger and more self-accepting woman. The rest of the world may see her as an inconsequential spinster, but she knows better, and so do we.
Falconer succeeds in integrating Eureka's melancholy maturation with that of the town itself. Mr. Medlicott, Eureka's boss at the town pharmacy, sees his scientific paradigms and Victorian values crumble in the face of his son's death on a European front. The manner of the soldier's death is typical of Falconer's takes on traditional fictional conceits: he succumbs to gangrene after kneeling on and being cut by a dead comrade's false tooth.
Katoomba's physical state mirrors its disintegrating assumptions. Estates are chopped into subdivisions, and the town's famed Hydro Majestic spa hotel burns to the ground. After the war, disenchanted veterans scowl at their former commanders instead of saluting them. And what Kitchings saw as God's country is parsed into democratized and trivialized Kodak moments by a swarm of loud and littering tourists. Eureka's sanatorium boss, Matron Croan, vividly expresses this deglamorization of the mountains when she opines that cloud pictures look "like gobs of expectorated phlegm." It is the chain-smoking Croan who teaches Eureka that there is "a place in the world for reasonable anger."
In short, the new age isn't pretty, but it's one Eureka can live in, and in which she can find for herself the identity that Victorian illusions withheld from her for so long. Not an utterly original coming-of-age construct, perhaps, but effective all the same.
Falconer's mind swims in metaphor, and there are passages in which they accumulate to the point of overkill: "The sawdust had darted around his hands like a swarm of eager insects. He had watched the gas lights of Katoomba jump like stars in the darkness far across the valley and seen the clouds pressed flat and white beneath him like an altar cloth." Falconer would do better, on occasion, to let something be, and not be like.
But at her best, Falconer is a virtuoso. Her world wins us over as Eureka is won over to Harry.
I imagined that Harry Kitchings might one day like me in the same way that he liked clouds.The harshness of the age aside, we, along with all the other lovers and cloud-gazers, are wooed to that "certain point at which one comes to inhabit longing." And it is a captivating, if sometimes cruel, place.
Alexander C. Kafka, a screenwriter, is senior press officer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
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