The novel that took some ten years to write, Marcella Polain is back with her breath-taking work, Driving into the Sun (Fremantle Press, 2019).
The story revolves around an eleven-year-old girl named Orla on the precipice of womanhood. She, like most girls her age, is enthralled by animals and dreams of riding a horse. She basks in the love and approval of her parents, particularly her father, and tries to model perfect behaviour for her little sister, Deebee. Orla, even at the beginning of the novel, is careful not to speak out of turn; not to disturb her dad whilst he writes; to sit still; to behave like the good girl she is desperate to be. But then her little world implodes when her shining light—her father—dies. Now, Orla, her younger sister, and their mother, Henry, must navigate the smoking and hoof-beaten earth of their lives without their father and husband.
Polain’s word economy speaks largely to her background in poetry. Much of Orla’s internal dialogue is snuffed out mid-sentence creating this overwhelming pressure of emotion. Not only does Orla become an increasingly complex character but it also emphasises the author’s plea to the wider-adult community to acknowledge the emotional insight children have but that is often, traumatically, dismissed. The effect caused my breath to catch and pointed to those moments of my own childhood where I felt unfairly treated only because I was the youngest in the room. Scenes and images are also repeated, again to intensify feelings of dread and loss in Orla but also to intensify the readers’ resonance with the character’s tragedy.
There is another conversation at play throughout the novel: the disempowerment of women in Australia during the late 60s. Polain pens quite an explicit scene where Henry, Orla’s mother, is denied a bank loan because there is no longer a man who can stand the role of guarantor. This became the key I needed to unlock the significance of the book’s horrifying cliff-hanger ending and the movements of the peripheral but immediate danger of “the Prowler”. The men become both providers and the protectors or become the wolves, picking the women off like sheep. Not because women are incapable of protecting and providing for their families but because the social constructs of Australia in the late 60s were like sending a mob of sheep into a wolves’ den. But this is not just the social construct of Australia in the late 60s. There is much of this conversation that reverberates across the globe in 2019 and illuminates the necessity of feminist and equality-driven movements.
Driving into the Sun is rich in language and versatile in structure. This is not a book you can expect to blow through. It demands attention. It demands sensitivity. At times, dare I say, the emotional response it extracts from the reader can be taxing but, nonetheless, worthwhile. It is a pertinent reminder that families can take different shapes; that we were once all children; and, now more than ever, not to take for granted how far we have come from the discrimination instilled into our society and cultures fifty years ago and, without a doubt, how much there is still left to do.