THIS IS AN ending to my latest novel, The Book of Rapture, that was eventually abandoned – creating a very different book in the process.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? The three children, Soli, Tidge and little Mouse, were taken to a room in the bowels of the building – the Collection Room. They were lined up, and one by one shot in the back of the head. End of story.
But not quite.
When the regime was toppled – as inevitably it was – the liberating forces were alerted to a handwritten document in the basement of the building that had housed the government's Central Command. Specific instructions were given: the document was to be found in a cupboard in an old training room. The person who alerted them was in exile, seeking political asylum. He was the son of the country's former second-in-command, a young man who had witnessed first-hand the atrocities his country had been subjected to.
Pin never saw his father again after that fateful day when his three friends were taken away from him. He snapped like a sail on a yacht breaking free from its rope and ran as far as he could from his old life. He ran into exile, and never went back. Because he knew his father's way was wrong. His friends had taught him that. It is said each child eventually becomes the parent – replicates patterns learnt from childhood – but it's not always so. Sometimes the child reacts violently against the parent, becomes something different. Better, perhaps. Stronger. It's called evolution.
Pin came to realise that his three friends had stood for everything his father didn't want: independence, individuality, freedom; wily, uncontainable thought. Question everything, Mouse wrote once, and Pin took that to heart. Their way wasn't wrong.
Little Mouse didn't survive the regime, but his writing did. The Four Books of the Fear Plague is his legacy.
Plagues end, eventually. And then they come back. But that's another story.
THIS ENDING WAS written in the days when the novel was called The Four Books of the Fear Plague. The trauma of titles! They either come swiftly and strongly, declaring themselves right at the start of the process – like Shiver and The Bride Stripped Bare – or they play a coy game of hide and seek for the entire time it takes to complete a novel. The Book of Rapture went through several restless titles: not only Fear Plague but also The Words that Roar. I loved the latter (from Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why forsake me? My words roar, and my salvation is afar'), until I bumped into an Aussie friend in London who nodded her head knowingly when I told her the name of the new book. ‘Oh yeah, like Helen Reddy – "I am Woman Hear Me Roar".' Er, no. Then an editor said, a little nervously, that The Words that Roar sounded angry. So, on toRapture.
As for the Afterword, in the end I didn't have the heart to do this to my three protagonists. Of course, the most brutal endings can be the most resonant – I'm thinking of Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Don't Look Now, The Wicker Man. But I'd grown to love my three central characters too much, and they were children, after all. Even though, throughout the writing, I had in my head the heartbreaking Pablo Neruda lines: ‘And through the streets the blood of the children / Ran without fuss, like children's blood.'
The world changed over the decade or so that I had this book with me; and as it did, my narrative changed. From the dark days of September 11, then on to Iraq, then Obama's election victory, there was an upward curve into something like light, a turning.
Ultimately I wanted a book that sang with hope in this fresh Obama world. I began thinking the novel in the years 1997 to 2000, when I was working in the engine room of the BBC World Service in London. It was the time of Kosovo and then Rwanda, Blair's years of negotiation over Northern Ireland, East Timor. There were common themes of displacement there, a fierce and murderous attachment to land, and mans' astonishing cruelty to man. Tough, unsexy, unfeminine subjects, but I wanted to write about them.
I knew back then this would be a book that would be a huge risk; it probably wouldn't sell; wouldn't be understood; would be attacked as too ambitious – but I'm attracted to risk like a fly to a barbie. I like going where others won't, God knows if it'll work or not. And over the years I found that the themes in Rapture wouldn't let me go. Two novels intervened, and three babies, but eventually I found the space for this book.
It took six long years of stopping and starting and almost abandoning, changing tense and point of view and lopping, eventually, half of it. The fragment above is written in the third person – the finished book is in the second. I love the distance yet immediacy the second person implies; I felt it worked in the novel I finished ahead of this one and wanted to try it again.
Rapture takes as its cue Salman Rushdie's rallying cry for novelists: ‘A writer's work is to name the unnameable, to point to frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.' With all my novels I write to explore, and to understand – whether it's Aboriginal Australia or exile or sex or whatever. This time I wanted to look at spirituality, among other things.
The book was also inspired by Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. I love its intensely poetic evocation of a particular people, and a place, long gone; a vivid snapshot of their world – and it's just as brutal as ours. I wanted to try a new form of fiction if I could, with echoes of an epic poem. A narrative for our time, a mythic story about the old world and the new. And always in my head as I work is the Ezra Pound dictum ‘Make it new.' I love aiming for something fresh with each book, something unique.
Rapture's setting could be any place under occupation, any place where freedom is under threat. There are references to China, Tibet, East Timor, Afghanistan, Palestine, North Korea, Chile, Aboriginal Australia. I wanted readers to understand something of what it must be like for displaced people, but also to create a very modern yarn.
To Rushdie again: ‘wrestle with the world...very few writers (have) the courage or even the energy to bite off a big chunk of the universe and chew it over.' With Rapture, I wanted to try. I think Australians are well placed to do this. Our mind-boggling, world-seizing ambition has something to do with being on the edge of the world, looking in. It's a mindset: no one told us we couldn't. So we do.