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Night Fishing : a review

by Trevor Moore

Night Fishing

Vicki Hastrich, Allen & Unwin, 2019, 248pp, ISBN 9-781-7-6087-5503

There are some things in life that are interesting and some that are not. That has to be true, but I concede that what is interesting to me – and, indeed, what is not interesting to me – is peculiar to me. I haven’t yet discovered everything that I am interested in, but I certainly have a list of things that I am not interested in. And one of those things is fishing. I have always supposed that men (I cannot speak for women) fish because their fathers fished. Somehow in the generational transfer of pastimes, the father manages to make acceptable the boredom in what must surely be one of the most boring pastimes of all pastimes. My father did not fish and neither did he play golf. Mark Twain said that golf is a good walk spoiled. He also said that there are two things that we cannot avoid; death and taxes. His track record of being right is good. But I am rambling.

I had been reading much history of late – William Penn’s The Winter King largely about Edward IV, Michael Hicks’ Richard III (younger brother of Edward IV), and John Ashdown-Hill’s The Third Plantagenet (about the Duke of Clarence who was the middle brother and who was drowned in a butt of malmsey) – and I decided I needed a novel or two to lighten the reading load. I made my way, as I do in these circumstances, to Moruya Books where I found Dervla McTiernan’s new one (which I will review soon - it’s a good one) and a novel by Peter Townshend (yes, that Pete Townshend). As I was contemplating these potential purchases Julie thrust Night Fishing into my hands and told me that she had really enjoyed it and that it was a worthwhile use of the reader’s time.

You will not be surprised, given my views on fishing, to be somewhat sceptical of a book that has the word “fishing” in the title and that is a collection of essays. I gave her a quizzical look, but her recommendations have been sound before (with the possible exception of Max Porter’s Lanny which I find incomprehensible) so I added it to the heap and paid over good money. And, my word, I am so pleased that I did. It goes to show that following one’s prejudices is highly likely to deprive one of experiences that are definitely worth having. Perhaps I should overcome my aversion to fishing – but, no, that would be taking things to extremes.

What Vicki Hastrich has done in this little book is to write a collection of short memoirs of her childhood. I am always in awe of people who can remember much about their childhoods. But the lure of the water, and of fishing with her father and uncle are clearly writ large in her memory. Perhaps she doesn’t remember as much as she would like, and perhaps that’s why she makes connections with all sorts of ideas about science, art, philosophy and nature. Her mind wanders as she writes, and she takes her reader on a journey down new and interesting byways. The third essay in the collection is called My Life and the Frame. She used to be a camera operator and she has a solid appreciation of art. She writes about frames. Now, you would think that reading about frames would be down there with fishing and golf. I can assure you that when you read Hastrich on frames you will be rapt. She makes an interesting point about the use of the frame in Western art and then notes that when “I thought of aboriginal rock art and rock galleries and I couldn't recall ever seeing a line drawn around an image to isolate it or privilege it over another. In the Indigenous world, it would seem, art was never separate from life.”

I am part of a small group that meets every month to discuss some deep philosophical conundrum. This month we are going to ask ourselves some questions about language and meaning. So, in reading this book I was delighted to find an essay entitled The Nature of Words. Hastrich says that sometimes when she can’t sleep, words come to her. Just words. She doesn’t “rate them or otherwise judge … [or] … join them together or mark them for future uses.” She asks whether painters view their colours in the same way that a wordsmith views her words. She describes the properties of words in the way that a painter might describe her colours. Words, she says, “have individual properties … active lives entangled with our own … are more than mere signs”. Then she asks “if the words of my language are a precious part of my existence how must others feel I've lost so many of theirs?” She refers to garawa (meaning sea, ocean), wudal (rain. pour) and gurumin (shadow of a person). These are words from the Darkinjung language group. She says that these are “words that I'd like to add to my lexicon, but they belong first to the families of the original speakers, who, for so long, have had to make do without them.”

This little book is full of thought-provoking observations like this. It is full of connections that make you put the book down and ponder the implications of what you’ve just read. Yet it’s not a difficult book, in the sense of being hard to read or to come to terms with. Quite the opposite. Unless you pause to ponder what she’s saying you could read it in a couple of sittings.

I am so glad that I overcame my aversion to fishing and read this book. You should read it, too.

There’s more about the author, and two earlier novels, at vickihastrich.com.

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