Posted November 14, 2017
When Sirens Call
Belinda Babchek doesn’t know if she’s running into life or away from it. She was pushed into her odyssey, leaving Australia for Europe as a cure. Yet phantoms continue to haunt her. On the Greek island of Nausikaa, she meets Robert Aimard, author and hotel-keeper, and with his own demons after being abandoned by his wife and daughter. When they meet it’s as if a siren’s song had brought them together. However, the sirens lead all ships on to rocks, and their fated attraction leads to a final tragedy.
“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” James Joyce, Ulysses
I have just finished Paul Adkin's novel When Sirens Call and I want to shout to anyone out there "Read This Novel!" I do not want to do a review that tells the story, I think the novel does that really well and I may ruin another reader's journey into this wonderful landscape, but (yes a small but) it is set on a Greek island and it does refer to the Sirens so I'd like to "lift" that central image and bring it into this review.
A novel should act like the Sirens to the reader. Like Odysseus, we strap ourselves to the mast and let the author, through the novel, through its words, images, rhythms, plot lines, and other devices, sing to us, and thus allow the author to carry us to places we have not imagined, or that we have but have avoided looking at too closely for it may disturb the shallows where we live our lives by reminding us of those monsters that dwell in a Jungian Deep.
This book is full of monsters. Not the physical kind but the ones that always hold me, the intellectual kind. It is a book of ideas, of philosophies and of characters. People who leap out at you, people you've met or would have liked to. Fictional and real people — the paradox of good writing.
This book has been filling my head space for a week or so now as I worked my way through its gently unfolding chapters, my reading accelerating just as the novel, like all good novels, did, bringing me deeper and deeper into the world of this novel, into the minds of the two main characters and into the ideas that Paul Adkin explores.
I will let the novel dwell now for a few days, let his words sink, his images sink, let it all sink deep into that place inside where all the books we read (those that touch us at least) go.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, but I do recommend it, highly.
Danny Fahey, author of The Tree Singer, The Woodcarver's Son, dannybfahey.blogspot.com
Adrift in Madrid, twenty-something Belinda is a refugee from suburban Melbourne, craving sensation yet in danger of being overwhelmed by her own fears. She sets out for the tiny Greek island of Nausikaa, seeking solace, meaning and escape.
Ageing novelist Robert is another refugee who left Britain and settled on Nausikaa, searching for a simpler life for himself and his family. But his wife had other dreams, departing for New York with their young daughter. Many years later he remains immured on the island as innkeeper and local identity.
Two outsiders, one is fleeing her former self, the other is dwelling in the past. Their lives collide in a village where ageing philosophers sit in the taverna watching the world pass while squabbling over politics, where tourists purchase 'hand-painted' thimbles made in China and life continues much as it has for centuries.
Wickedly observed, with moments of pure absurdity and evocative descriptions of island life, When Sirens Call is a meditation on art, love and the nature of friendship. It will draw you into its world then chill you with its shocking conclusion.
Carol Jones, author of The Losers' Club and Cupid and Co.
When Sirens Call finds its center of gravity in the romantically charged meeting between Belinda Babchek and Robert Aimard on a Greek island, but this is not your dime store romance novel. Paul Adkin tackles something much more ambitious, something that picks up on the modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, using the framework of odyssey and romance to explore the nuances of intersubjective separation and contact.
True to the expectation created by the setting, Adkin’s descriptions are finely crafted, from the Greek island scenery to the stream-of-consciousness flow of associations within the young Aussie traveler and photographic artist, Belinda, and the English expat writer and island hotelier, Robert. Indeed, the travelogesque descriptions often clothe the philosophical points of the novel. Belinda notices early on, for example, before leaving Madrid, that “the megalopolis ... seen from without, seems nobler,” while seen from within it is “chaos ... vulgar, bitter, sharp, filthy” (37). This, in a way, encapsulates the novel’s whole point about human identity and the world we live in. The island scenery, the “tiny fishing trawler ... the setting sun ... gleaming yachts” (130) that form the outer shell of our protagonists’ experience, are beautiful and real, but equally real are the messy subjective interiors struggling anxiously, hopelessly, “absurdly” as both our protagonists like to say, to define a self and a place in the world.
The same doubleness reads as a critique of the “romance” genre into which the novel might faux fit, a genre that typically achieves an outer shell of dreamy idealism, even in tragedy, but does so only by obfuscating the messy interior of bodily functions and psychological disturbances. Adkin doesn’t spare us the messy interior, but rather lifts the veil on the genre itself. The romantic island “paradise,” as Aimard suggests, is a poor cover for a “wasteland” within (186).
The two principal characters do not meet until the second half of the novel, and this may make for a slow start for some readers. The first half, with little or no plot, develops subjective and intersubjective spaces, building up a sense of human identity and a modernist force field of themes – alienation, dislocation, loss of meaning, the individual adrift. Separately, we bob along the interior currents of Robert and Belinda, following their inner lives as they daily reconstruct an identity built upon fears, hopes, lost loves and missed connections, percepts in the immediate environment, nuggets of philosophy and social criticism, literary and archetypal allusions that float in and out of their minds.
Each character marks out an identity by a mental repetition of fence posts – cultural, historical, personal, and archetypal reference points that stabilize the frame. But the real pressure points are the points of intersubjective contact – the string of ghosts, shadows, substitute antecedents for the missing him or her, the compulsive desire for, and destabilizing fear of, human contact. The “traps” and “tricks” of Belinda’s photography, of Robert’s novels, might be seen in this light as the traps and tricks we register in all our past relationships and with which we inexorably color our future relationships in advance.
Despite differences in age and background, Robert and Belinda share much when it comes to the struggles of identity construction and sense of loss and emptiness in their lives. Indeed, as we oscillate between their streams of consciousness before the meeting, one wishes that Adkin had done more to differentiate the two, had given a more unique prosody and rhythm to each of these interior monologues, had more sharply distinguished the laws of physics governing these respective psyches. But these are the flaws of highly ambitious writing, and it is difficult not to appreciate what Adkin has accomplished as we stumble into and explore the interior landscapes he has given us.
Once the two meet, this modernist base, this malaise of intersubjectivity, is coupled to a plot with an arc, a tension, a sense of anticipation that pulls the reader into the story by the buttonhole. The plot does not have the intricacy and complexity of a classic Dickens plot, but comes rather in the mold of a D. H. Lawrence plot, where the objective sequence is simple but the subjective
dynamics foster ample suspense and expectancy to drive the reader forward.
We do get our plot resolution in the end, and I for one like the novel best when the plot becomes superimposed upon the subjective arena at its base, but this is finally not a novel about plot. It is a novel about subjective spaces, lonely spaces, and moments of separation and contact. Like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, it is a novel not exhausted by the plot, but rather a novel one can return to over and over, expecting with each reading the discovery of new layers of flora and fauna in those fluid spaces between the archetypal and the everyday, where “fishermen’s beards become philosophers’ beards” (21), where all lines converge toward Greece, the cradle of our collective unconscious.
Dr Gary Gautier, University of Colorado, www.shakemyheadhollow.com
'With a vivid interiority, this novel tracks the life paths of two broken people towards their ill-fated encounter on a lonely island in the Aegean. With Joyce its inspiration and Homer its template, animated by history, philosophy, religion and politics, When Sirens Call is a rich, playful and allusive book.’
Wayne Macauley, author of Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, The Cook and The Demons
More about Paul David Adkin
Paul David Adkin was born in 1958 at Long Eaton, Derbyshire. His early years were spent in a council house in Bridge Street, Sandiacre, which runs parallel to the Erewash canal. The contrast between gloomy brick and the calm, fecund life of the river; between the poverty of the town and the richness of the natural world, was deeply ingrained in Paul’s imagination. In 1965, his family migrated to Australia.
In Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, it was his discovery of Swift, Dostoevsky and Patrick White that opened Paul’s mind to the beauty and power of literature. He studied drama and literature at Rusden in 1976. After graduating he wrote and directed his first play at La Mama Theatre in Carlton, The Jack and Jill Story. In 1982 he became the artistic-director-in-residence at Anthill Theatre in South Melbourne where he directed his play Schadenfreude.
In 1983 he left Melbourne for Japan and lived a year there teaching English and working on a novella, published thirty years later as Art Wars. He moved to Madrid, married Isabel Martin and wrote a novel Purgatory about Spanish attempts to discover Australia. Paul returned to the theatre and founded three theatre companies in Madrid. Big Bang and Ñu Accents were created to do plays that could teach English in Spanish schools. His third company, Ñu Teatro, produced Paul’s scripts, either translated or written in Spanish.
With the millennium Paul and his wife started holidaying in the Greek Islands. His short story Kalimera won the Eyelands competition in 2012 and was translated into Greek. When Sirens Call is another product of this very happy and fruitful relationship with the islands.