- The Fifth Season, by Philip Salom. Transit Lounge, $29.99.
Each year thousands of novels are published, that on top of the millions that have been produced down through the ages. How is it possible to keep the form fresh and lively, vital even?
Enter Philip Salom.
Salom is a poet of considerable distinction, having won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Western Australia Premier's Prize for Poetry; he has also been recognised with the Christopher Brennan Prize, Australia's most prestigious lifetime award for poets. Further, Salom is a novelist, with Waiting (2016) being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Prime Minister's Literary Award; The Returns (2019) was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. Despite his rather extraordinary biography, Salom's name is not widely recognised in Australia, which is perhaps not surprising in a country that is so doggedly anti-arts, let alone anti-intellectual.
The narrative in The Fifth Season centres on Jack, an older writer, who rents a cottage in a Victorian seaside town at the end of the high season. It is clear that Jack has some kind of writing project to do; he is fascinated by - obsessed with - the idea of missing people, especially those whose bodies are found but the person's identity has been erased. An example Salom uses is the Somerton Man, a real case of a male body being found on a beach in Adelaide but there was no wallet and the labels had been removed from the clothes; it seems the poor chap had enough time to smoke a cigarette before dying. If that is not strange enough, words were found on his person, words that appeared to make no sense - were they some kind of code? Theories abound about the Somerton Man's identity: a Russian or British spy; a heartbroken lover. There are still no answers.
Salom trans-locates that sense of strange otherness to The Fifth Season. The cottage's backyard is not so much a garden but a sight for outlandish ceramic objects. The shed appears to be watching him. Slowly, Jack ventures further afield and befriends some of the locals, primarily through the pub. He soon discovers that Sarah, the young woman who owns the cottage, has her own story to tell: her sister Alice went missing some years earlier - not only is Sarah searching for Alice, she is also a visual artist who paints public murals of her sister's face. But wait, there's more. A previous resident of the cottage, a man called Simon Turner, was a writer too, and also seemed to be interested in the missing.
Jack and Sarah become unlikely friends, gradually sharing more about their lives. All the while, Jack reads Turner's self-published novel that he wrote while staying in the cottage, before he too disappeared.
The Fifth Season is a mystery novel, though it is a mystery of the mind more than one in which a solution will be offered. Sure, Salom drops hints, clues and red herrings, but he is more interested in exploring the nature of time and memory - the essence of existence - than delivering a neatly constructed whodunnit.
Considerable slabs of the Turner novel are quoted in The Fifth Season. After one such tract, there is this: "Reading back through this book of cross-associations and wishful ideas, with (now that Jack knows) all its psychological ingenuousness... suggests Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Reading Hawking's book requires a kind of backwards-and-forwards trust: you have to accept each concept at face value, try to fix it in the brain, then move on to the next concept, which is built on the earlier one, then on, and on...You are left there supported by nothing. Then the forwards shifts backwards. In fact, you have been reading backwards in time, because you never really knew any of it, beyond perhaps the first concept."
If this is starting to sound highfalutin, a disservice has been done to Salom and his wonderful novel. Just one of the achievements is the way he writes with such warmth; indeed, there is much affection on the pages, between the author and his characters, between the characters themselves, and between the author and his readers. The Fifth Season is also very funny. When Jack tries to get a handle on the cottage's strange garden, Salom writes, "Not urns or whatever anyone might call the tall cylindrical things in Sarah's backyard, nothing as modest as that, no - steel towers held together with internal ribs and struts, rendered over and inlayed with ceramics. Grand designs!"
Ultimately, like the best poetry, The Fifth Season needs to be unlocked, revealing its many layers and multiple meanings. In lesser hands it could easily become an exercise in self-pleasure. However, Salom's compassion and humanity, and his generosity towards the reader, means this is a most unique and unforgettable reading experience. The novel deserves to be piled high in bookshop windows, and reach the very top of the prize lists.
- Nigel Featherstone is the author of the novel Bodies of Men.