Words || Cameron Colwell
“She wants to call out to Joe, but she’s too breathless, the slope is too much. Her feet aren’t touching the ground now, but treading air, churning up the stones in front of her, which slide across the surface. She laughs with the freedom of movement, Joe with her, no one else but them in the night, the streetlights across Flinders Street like oil wells set alight, burning endlessly, tankers pulled up at the wharf, the sea empty, glassy, mud beneath the surface, crabs buried in the mud, only their pincers raised above the dirt, snapping the empty water around them, hoping some unlucky creature will, by some lining up of the stars, a flicking of fins, be in that precise space at the moment when their pincers close around it and pull the fish, struggling, back into the hole.”
Historical fiction is not a genre I am particularly keen on. I largely (and unfairly) associate it with endless leaden exposition, snail-paced plotting, and cardboard characterisation. Fortunately, Ariella van Luyn’s debut novel, Treading Air, proved my expectations wrong, delivering a deeply interesting story of 1920s Queensland with one of the most unforgettable protagonists I’ve encountered this year.
Lizzie O’ Dea is bored and irritated with Brisbane life with her suffocating, alcoholic father, when she meets the grim and rugged Joe, who she eventually marries.
They move to Townsville, but following an incident at Joe’s work, the pair fall into poverty. Lizzie decides to start a career as a sex worker. Twenty years in the future, she looks back on her past from a lock hospital – a type of hospital that specialises in sexually transmitted disease – when a familiar face arrives.
Sex workers in fiction are often treated with patronisation and pity. However, Lizzie’s agency and spirit means she remains a three-dimensional character. Treading Air doesn’t gloss over the business, depicting sex as visceral and rough. Throughout all of this, the demands and constraints of working-class life are strongly portrayed: while Lizzie does find a living in her work, it’s always precarious and never entirely safe.
Her relationship with Joe is one of the most attractive features of the book. He’s initially a savior figure who gallantly rescues her from her father, but the war veteran soon reveals himself to be violent and brutish, yet at times still vulnerable and tender towards Lizzie.
Van Luyn’s chief strength is her skill in characterisation. There’s always the sense that while her characters may do deplorable things, each of them are ultimately victims of circumstance, an element of the book that helps to round out the characters.
However, despite all this, the book does become tiring somewhere around the middle. Scenes that went nowhere and the book’s rather plain prose stalled the momentum gained in the fast-paced opening, as reading of Lizzie and Joe’s struggles becomes tiresome. The book does recover, leading to a riveting climax that has each of the qualities of a successful plot twist: unpredictability, and the realisation of its inevitably in retrospect.
In Treading Air, Ariella Van Luyn has succeeded in creating a gritty book that manages to be a compelling, sleek piece of historical fiction. I would not be surprised to see it on the shortlists of major literary prizes next year.
(Affirm Press, RRP $24.99)