I’m familiar with Mark O’Flynn as a poet so I was interested to see his novel The Last Days of Ava Langdon in the Miles Franklin longlist. Off I trotted to the library to get it and while I was there picked up two other O’Flynns, a novel called The Forgotten World and a memoir called False Start.
The Last Days of Ava Langdon is based closely on the life of Eve Langley, whose 1942 novel The Pea Pickers is an Australian classic, though hardly anyone these days has read it. (I haven’t.) As this piece on the Neglected Books blog will tell you http://neglectedbooks.com/?p=4288 Langley was a fascinating, troubled, iconoclastic soul who wrote as if her life depended on it but only ever had two books published in her lifetime. She ended her life as a recluse in a tumbledown hut in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, where O’Flynn himself lives. And this is where we meet Ava, dressed in her men’s trousers and braces, cravat, fur coat and solar topi, carrying her trusty machete in a holster by her side, off to town to post yet another manuscript to her long-suffering publishers. In the long day that is the novel she has many encounters: with a cheeky boy, an obtuse post-office attendant, a grieving widow in the cemetery, a stroganoff-obsessed diner at the soup-kitchen, a barman who’s never heard of Immanuel Kant, an unchristian priest, a policeman who doesn’t like her scaring children in the local park with her machete, a tree-surgeon’s assistant who knocks her over with his van, and the staff at the local hospital from which she escapes with great presence of mind when they talk about admitting her. (When the doctor asks what caused the wound in her leg, she says, “Time’s winged chariot”.) When she finally gets home she has an unexpected visitor who brings her past with him.
Ava’s imagination is always working on what she sees and hears – other people, birds, rats, trees, frost, railway lines. Snatches of poetry and new images are always flooding her mind. Rejected over and over, every time she posts one of her 400-page pink manuscripts she believes, like her alter ego Oscar Wilde,
The age of miracles is not past. It has not yet begun.
Rambunctiously funny as it is, this is a tender, empathetic book. There’s great skill in the way Mark O’Flynn weaves the comical side of Ava, her wit and nerve, with the sadness of her past and the extremity of her need to write and to be recognised. She really is a voice crying in the wilderness.
These one-voice novels situated in an eccentric mind are hard to get right. O’Flynn does a beautiful balancing act between the close third person and the inner voice:
Coat on, helmet on, bag over her shoulder, Ava leaves the warm, smoky hall and steps outdoors again. Again the pigeons erupt upward, settling on the low-hanging eaves of the library, place of betrayal and deceit. For a moment she wonders what pigeon tastes like. One of these days, you never know, it might come to that. She heads uphill beside the railway station and the underpass. It would be interesting to enumerate her steps, she thinks, count how many steps to the corner, but that would be pathological, like wanting to know how many lunches she’s had, and Ava is not pathological, no matter what they say. To mention the word stroganoff three times in the one breath, now that’s pathological. She is lucid and aware, on the verge of a new discovery. She just needs to clarify what it is without falling into the lava again. (108-9)
And as you see, it’s all in Present Tense, another thing that’s hard to do well. Here, it’s perfect.
If this one wins the Miles Franklin perhaps The Forgotten World might get the attention it deserves. It’s an absolute mystery to me why this terrific book, published in 2013, hasn’t attracted more attention. I couldn’t even find a review of it. I’m reading False Start now. More of Mark O’Flynn later.