Nationality: Australian. Born: Melbourne, Victoria, 29 July 1957. Education: Melbourne State College, B.A. in education 1979. Family: Married Francesca White in 1983; one son and one daughter. Career: Taught creative writing, Peninsula College of Technical and Further Education. Awards: Australia Council/Literature Board fellowship, 1989, 1991; Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, 1992, for prose; National Book Council Banjo award, 1993, for fiction. Address: 1 Stephens Road, Mt. Eliza, Victoria 3930, Australia.
The Velodrome. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1988.
Soundings. St. Lucia, Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1993.
The White Woman. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1994.
The Shipwreck Party. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989.*
University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, Campbell, Australia.
Liam Davison comments:
Much of my fiction is concerned with exploring the ways in which our knowledge of the past influences the way we perceive the world about us. Rather than writing historical fiction, I am interested in fiction that explores the notion of history itself and the relationship it bears with myth and story. Faulkner's notion of the past not being dead and not even being past yet, has had a strong influence on my work. I'm also interested in the idea of alternative and silenced histories which has a particular bearing on the post-colonial nature of Australian society and its attempts to redefine itself.
My third book Soundings integrates three narrative strands from different periods of Australian history, all set in the Westernport region of Victoria. While many have read it as a contemplation of the landscape of the region, it is also an exploration of the different cultural and historical perceptions and expectations imposed on a new land. The White Woman explores the notion of history in a quite different way. Operating largely as a re-working of a nineteenth century captivity myth about a virtuous white woman held captive by the Aborigines of Gippsland, it considers the power and consequences of story and the role it plays in shaping the way we live.* * *
In four works of fiction, Liam Davison has made his mark among the younger generation of Australian novelists. He writes an elegant and cadenced yet earthly prose. Davison also has an individualistic preoccupation with humans' efforts to impose order on the world and to construct themselves by creating history, maps, roads, and canals. He is a landscape novelist, mapping the human psyche.
Davison's first novel, The Velodrome, is narrated by Leon, whose father, like his two friends Sam and Eric, is a passionate cyclist. Leon sees the three men constantly circle the cosmos on their biketrack, traveling eternally to the same spot and achieving "order."
In a cycling accident, Leon's father is killed and Eric is crippled. The two men and Leon's mother, now married to Eric, decide to find a new order by breaking the circle and making the long journey to the north of Australia. Traveling is a central theme in Davison's fiction, and most human interaction takes place on the road or on the water, shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face. There is a studied detachment in the prose, and dying is presented as an act of absentmindedness. Being murdered is more thought-provoking. Characters do not turn to other people but to the stories they use to make themselves; to God as benign cartographer, to "collecting the facts" into a shoe box of index cards, to measuring out life with the wheels of a well-made bike. The Velodrome may at times seem a little too self-conscious in its emotional distancing, but its narrative line is strong, its images reverberate, and its spare, nuanced prose lingers tantalizingly.
The Shipwreck Party, Davison's collection of stories, furthers his preoccupation with landscape as a taken rather than a given. A party is held on a grounded ship. Water flows through most of the subsequent fiction. Davison does not write about people in the landscape. Rather he focuses on the landscape or the seascape within the people. At the shipwreck, characters see the same but different things. Seeing is creating.
A story about a famous Australian convict, Buckley, who escaped to live with the Aborigines, signals two interests that become central. Unpursued, Buckley experiences "ironic disappointment." Characters are so busily creating a self in story that they are unable to read the stories of others. Each man is an island complete unto himself. And the causeway can offer drowning as well as welcome.
Also, in his two next novels, Soundings and The White Woman, Davison has moved from assiduous impersonality to a more emotionally energetic prose. His writing never risks death by flamboyance, but language has thawed and the grace of the prose takes on more force as both novels develop the interest in Australia's colonial past found earlier in Buckley.
If each person is an island, islands still have histories and changing shapes. Soundings is a deftly constructed novel covering three periods of Australian history. The first is the 1820s, predating the colony of Victoria. Wolfish sealers, French scientists, and the English explorer Hovell suspiciously track each other. Each sees a different country—and, in the indigenous people, a different species. Passionately calm, Davison stories a shame that even now is being only edgily owned by history.
Davison is not in any conventional sense "an historical novelist," but he deeply probes the ways in which we talk ourselves into being. History becomes the present trying to run away from itself. His second era is the 1900s, when swamplands were reclaimed for "progress." Canals are human bypass surgery on nature. Life might swamp them, but they leave scars of control. The natural world has signed no Geneva Convention for rules in war. There is a constant edge of absurdity in Davison's writing. The human animal is laughable but too busy making its story seriously important to notice. As one character remarks, "history's a lot safer than boats."
The third story is that of a contemporary landscape photographer who, with an old photo-finish camera, glimpses people long dead. Though sometimes a little contrived, this reinforces Davison's focus that seeing is inventing.
The White Woman, Davison's most powerful achievement yet, confirms that there are no absolutes in history, only ceremonial reunions or family squabbles of relatives. An old man looks back over half a century to 1847 when he took part in an expedition to rescue a white woman supposedly held captive by the Aborigines. As he relives his story, he makes clear "how much we needed her." His narrative takes on religious dimensions—"It was love" and "I still had faith in her." She is the white Madonna, enslaved by "savages, brutes, the very opposite of what we are ourselves." Such is history, official truth. The old man's truth is savagely different. Davison becomes a frontier novelist. The frontier is where civilization ends or behind which it has flourished for fifty thousand years.
Here Davison transcends fashionable political politeness. His most firmly modulated narrative brings into harmony his interest in history as the story we tell ourselves to make our dreams safe, his sense of landscape as invention, and his vision of the world as eternally elusive. All good stories are Revised Standard Versions and The White Woman has biblical rhythm and authority.
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