We recently looked at Sophie Cunningham’s non-fiction work, Melbourne, and this week I’m delving into her first fiction work, Geography. This is a travel narrative on two levels: a physical journey from Australia to Los Angeles to India and back again and an emotional journey of a woman coming to grips with an obsessive love.
The narrator, Catherine, begins her story in the present, chatting in India with a newfound travelling friend, Ruby. Just upon the point of telling her life story, Catherine begins to doubt the worth of telling such a potentially clichéd tale at all:
People are bored with stories of obsession. With women in their late thirties who are single, the reasons they might be so…
‘I like stories,’ Ruby says. ‘It’s one of the fun things about travelling – hearing people’s stories.’
Yes, it is, and Cunningham proceeds to intersperse the narrative of her re-discovery of India with flashbacks to her obsessive LA-based love. As she flags, people do sometimes get bored with obsessive love stories – perhaps because these tend to involve a lot of repetition – ‘she loves him / she hates him / she loves him again’, etc… Obsessive love narratives can make you want to slap the hopeless heroine and tell her to get a grip.
Well, I did occasionally feel the urge to slap coming on, but this is just testimony to Cunningham’s skill at communicating the depth of the obsession. As usual, the object of the obsession is hardly worth all that angst – the reader can clearly see he is arrogant, uncaring and untrustworthy. However, we are also given entry to Catherine’s headspace and we see that, from her point of view, her love interest, Michael, is endlessly intriguing and promises to open up new avenues of experience. The excitement of being with him is tied up with that exciting feeling of ‘being overseas’ , wherein every little action – opening the door to a new hotel room, driving past a famous house, is experienced at a kind of heightened level of reality. Being in love with this man, Cunningham implies, is at some level being in love with exotica and otherness and unknown-ness – all the things that are part of travelling to new places. The connection between physical and emotional geography is made explicit through Catherine’s quoting of the metaphysical poet John Donne:
Licence my roving hands to go
Behind, before, above, between, below
Oh my America, my new found land…
Can such love survive the transfer to the more ordinary turf of her home country? The obsession seems likely to falter under less cosmopolitan conditions…
For those inclined to dismiss Los Angeles as shallow, materialistic and crowded with fake overly-tanned airheads, Cunningham persuasively mounts a case for it being Not Such a Bad Town After All. Catherine enjoys the scenery, the old art deco architecture, the exotic feeling of starring in your own movie. Cunningham has a particular skill for capturing the joy of travel and she makes LA seem fresh and interesting, despite its overexposure on bad TV shows for so many years.
Parallel to the central love story, is the gentle unfolding of Catherine’s travelling friendship with Ruby. Much younger but perhaps wiser, Ruby is a breath of fresh air compared to the stifling atmosphere of Catherine’s romantic obsession. As they travel on more deeply into the heart of India and into its spiritual history (beautifully described by Cunningham), the possibility starts to present itself that the friendship could deepen into something more…
What starts out as a contemporary travel story turns into a quite philosophical meditation upon the nature of obsession vs love, and destiny vs choice. Cunningham brings the reader to some thoughtful conclusions about women and personal responsibility. What is satisfying about this novel is the willingness to go ‘deeper’, to ask thoughtful questions about the choices of the protagonists and the meaning of the emotions involved.
One of the criticisms of this book when it first came out was that it was too adolescently autobiographical – a criticism which is unfair and patronising. Women’s writing is often criticised for being ‘too’ autobiographical, even though it is clear this style of writing is present in men’s books as well. What is implied in this criticism is that the details of women’s lives are simply not of interest to the reading public. Skilled writers like Cunningham demonstrate the falsity of this assumption and hopefully clear the way for more appreciation of women’s stories by readers of either gender. (Cunningham herself has been instrumental in supporting the recognition of women’s writing – see note below.)
A note of warning: Cunningham chooses to use the c-word to refer to her anatomy, being one of the women who thinks this word can be reclaimed and stripped of its women-hating connotations. I happen to disagree. Parallel to similar discussions about racist language, it may be less offensive for a woman to use this word, but that fact does not thereby strip it of its problematic history. If you are squeamish about this, you may find some parts of this book a little hard to take.
Verdict: Thoughtful travelogue / love story with a deeper reflection upon the nature of obsession vs authentic love and some evocative travel scenes. Will make you want to hop on a plane!
Watch out for: Cunningham has recently been involved in setting up a prize for women’s writing, the Stella Prize. Expect to discover some excellent new writing through this award… I can’t wait to see who will be the first winner!