A strong, tense, grisly story about a skin-related epidemic – with some insightful commentary on how Government’s treat the poor and elderly – is undercut by its inaccurate Australian setting.
Niall Harrison and Victoria Hoyle were quite ecstatic in their recommendations of Naomi Booth’s Sealed. I intended to read the novel a week or so back but a less than warm appraisal from a mate I trust held me back. Still, I can see this book being discussed by the Shadow Clarke judges, so I’ve decided to give it a whirl.
Pete and Alice move to the Australian country town of Lakoomba. I know the setting is Australian not because I’ve read the back cover copy, or I know where Lakoomba is located (which would be difficult given it’s an invention of the author’s) but because of the ocker (Aussie slang) that comes thick and fast almost from the outset. It’s making my teeth itch:
It’s not Australia if someone doesn’t say “bogan”:
Aussie slang aside one thing Booth does well is generate tension. We know that the city, possibly the country, maybe even the planet, has been hit by an epidemic called cutis. At this early point in the novel it’s not clear how it presents, and there’s the impression that the authorities are lying about how widespread it is, Pete certainly thinks it’s a beat up, but whatever cutis is, one section of the community it does affect is pregnant women. And guess who’s in her 37th week…
This scene with the bird in the backyard is unsettling, disturbing. It also sheds a light one what cutis might be.
And there we have it; cutis is the bodies uncontrolled response to the increase in toxins in the environment.
Other than Alf from Home and Away Australians who originate from the city, don’t speak like this. [I should note that not every Australian agrees that the particular excerpt below rings false].
The world-building here is excellent. The way information is delivered with a touch of cynicism and an appreciation of our goldfish attitudes to the world around us. If it’s not directly affecting me or mine, I can ignore it.
What’s frightening here – other than the threat of a weird skin disease – is how easy it is to swallow the idea of the Australian Government offering compensation and relocation to camps for the poor and the elderly.
This paragraph is a perfect encapsulation of all that’s good and all that’s awful about this book. Alice’s anxiety at being surrounded by all these toxins, poisons that could trigger cutis, is palpable but the Australian lingo undercuts it, ”diabolical tucker” is hilariously bad.
There are moments – such as the excerpt below, Alice remembering the first time she and Pete made love – when the prose is beautiful and nuanced. It makes the introduction of the Aussie lingo and slang all the more arbitrary and gratuitous.
The Gist Of It
I’m going to take a punt here and say that Sealed by Naomi Booth will be the most frustrating book I read all year.
There is so much about this novel I enjoyed ranging from Booth’s visceral, exquisitely grotesque prose to her social commentary on how society treats the poor and elderly. Beyond the body horror, the most disturbing aspect of the novel is how quickly those who can’t defend themselves have their basic rights stripped from them, leaving no choice but to submit to displacement camps established by the Government. The suggestion that these people are abused and indentured to possible private interests reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. (Margaret Atwood borrowed a similar idea in her 2015 novel The Heart Goes Last). The idea persists, not surprising given the current political climate and the western world’s treatment of the disenfranchised.
So, yes, when the novel plays to its strengths – the gore, the social commentary – it’s a delight to read, which makes it all the more frustrating that Booth’s depiction of Australia is so darn lazy. Now, I’m sure Booth either visited Australia on holiday or spent a few years here or gave a draft of the novel to a bunch of Australian mates, but whatever feedback back she got both from her own experiences and those of others it doesn’t translate into her representation of the country or its people. Booth’s setting is a tourist’s narrow take on Sydney and New South Wales. Her small country town in the Blue Mountains could be located on Mars for all its similarities to a place situated on the east coast of Australia. But worse is her stereotypical, shrimp on the barbie, Crocodile Dundee portrayal of the people. We’re all racists – the word “abbo” is flung around with abandon – and we’re misogynists – all the men are objectifying arseholes. I know, I know Australia has its fair share of racists and misogynists, just look at the guys representing us in Parliament. I’m also cognisant that there’s a shift in language and a greater preponderance of Aussie slang when you leave the major cities, but Booth’s depiction lacks authenticity. It’s inconsistent in tone; the prose shifts wildly from elegant language – some of it is indeed quite beautiful – to ockerisms, regularly in the same paragraph.
If Booth were Australian, I’d still be annoyed, but the fact that she’s an outsider makes it all the more offensive. And here’s the thing there’s nothing about the story that requires it to be set in Australia. If Booth was going for a sense of isolation, I’m sure there are places in the UK or Europe that would have provided the same effect. I’m genuinely bewildered as to why she chose Australia given the inherent risk of not getting it right.
If you’re not an Aussie, you’ll likely not have the same reaction that I did. I’m sure there are some Australians that will look past the slang and the setting. (Some Aussies may even believe that Booth has nailed us). For me, though, it was a dealbreaker. I’d certainly read more by Booth just not stories set in Australia.