"The Great Inland Sea"
(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie SEP 5, 2005)
David Francis' stark, beautifully crafted debut novel, The Great Inland Sea, takes its title from a vast desert-like area in Australia's New South Wales. This harsh, dry land was once, (hundreds of millions of years ago), a Great Inland Sea, where shells and fossilized sea creatures can still be found. Over the course of the narrative the reader discovers what our protagonist eventually learns in this unusual coming of age story, that people and things change. Neither the individuals who play a part in our lives, nor the events, are as predictable or as apparent as they seem. Day, a young man, is our narrator, and this is his story.
He left the family farm located near Maude, New South Wales, when he was twelve years-old. His father, Darwin, and his deceased mother, Emily, provided an emotional environment too dysfunctional for any child to thrive. Combined with the harsh physical climate, it's a wonder Day survived. He took-off after his mother's mysterious death, with just a pony to his name. Selling the animal in the nearest town, he made his way toward Melbourne, and found a job as a jockey along the way. He worked for the Delauney's at Sutton Grange for six years, breaking, exercising and caring for young thoroughbreds. Then, in 1953, he escorted a horse named Unusual to America.
On Maryland's eastern shore, Day meets Callie, a determined young woman, with a hard shell around her heart. She is set on becoming the first woman jockey...and a successful one at that. Day pours all his stored-up loneliness and intense yearning for love into his feelings for her. Emotionally scarred by a brutal childhood, Callie is not capable of reciprocating his love with much more than occasional affection, rejection and abuse. When thwarted, Day's feelings become obsessive. Again, his most critical needs, his overwhelming thirst for love, are met with a harsh, barren landscape. Haunted by his past in Australia, he returns to his father's farm and his mother's grave, to face his ghosts.
There he learns of his mother's girlhood in Vienna where she was an opera singer, and of a mysterious Argentinean man, Dickie Del Mar, who came to the farm once for an extended stay. Other than his mother, Del Mar was the only person Day remembers as showing him affection and paying him attention. Callie and Day remain in touch - usually by letter or telephone, the contact always instigated by him. Then she writes with an invitation. She asks him to travel to Mexico, to a horse show in Puebla. And so he leaves Australia for a second time, and initiates a scenario which puts the past and present on collision course.
The troubling story of Day's childhood, and the lives of his mother and father are darkly gothic in nature. A constant air of suspense permeates the narrative and Mr. Francis is unusually good at building tension and sustaining it. The prose is sparse but lyrical and the descriptions, especially of the Australian Outback, excite the senses and bring the landscape to life in the mind's eye. I am fascinated by the author's imagery of the sea, swimming and potential death by drowning - especially in the context of a desert environment.
The Great Inland Sea is a compelling, thought-provoking novel, and also a tautly written mystery. I eagerly await the author's next book and highly recommend this one.
- Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
*internationally published as Agapanthus Tango (2001)
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- The Elegant Variation interview with David Francis
- TrashoTron review of The Great Inland Sea (scroll down)
- The Believer review of The Great Inland Sea
- Curled Up review of The Great Inland Sea
- Washington Post review of The Great Inland Sea
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About the Author:
David Francis was born in 1958 in Victoria, Australia. He grew up on his family farm near Tooradin in Gippsland and has competed successfully as a show-jumping and eventing rider throughout world. He attended Monash University to study arts and law and in 1983 joined the law firm of Arthur Robinson & Hedderwicks in Melbourne.
In 1984 he left Australia to compete internationally with horses in Europe and went on to ride on the United States show-jumping circuit based outside New York. In 1986, he moved to California to work for an American law firm and to pursue show-jumping in California. From 1992 until 1999 he also sang with the oldest black gospel choir in Los Angeles.
In 1996 David began writing. Instead of leaving his law office at lunchtimes to school jumping horses near Griffith Park, he spent them writing long-hand in the Hollywood Cemetery. The Great Inland Sea is his first novel. In 2002, David received the Australia Literature Fund Fellowship to the Keesing Studio in Paris. He is still based in Los Angeles, where he works with the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., but spends part of each year with his family in Australia and also at the Cité International des Arts in Paris.