(Reviewed by Karma Sawka AUG 11, 2002)Circa 1955, the year before television would spell the end of vaudeville acts, the Blind Concert - a traveling fund-raising troupe in support of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind - rolls in to Towaninnie, a tiny town in Australia surrounded by farmland and swamp. They are preceded by a tempestuous storm that continues to rain down in sheets and drips and rivulets throughout the entire day in which this story, a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, takes place.
Since The Tempest is my favorite of the Bard's plays, I was curious about Meehan's adaptation then became very skeptical as I read the beginning of the book. I searched as I read: "Where are the similarities? How is this my Tempest?" The only clue I found was the stormy weather and so I tried grasping for literary straws, wishing for Meehan's characters to fit into Shakespeare's template, which just frustrated me more. Only when the story gathered momentum, and when I allowed the narrative to flow on its own without trying to force it to fit my expectations, did the parallels begin to show themselves, and, quite well, I might add. I found a recognizable version of my favorite 17th century play, dressed up in 1950s vaudeville greasepaint.
The skeleton of The Tempest is recognizable mostly within its key players. The compere, or master of ceremonies, travels Prospero-like, with heavy crates of books and journals in which he is writing the history of the Blind Concert. He is something of a father figure to many of the entertainers, having rescued each of them from some scrape or another and employed them with their various talents in the show. Mandy, quite Miranda-like, is a youthful, pale skinned, feminine, dark-haired English flutist, who seems to trust no man except the aging compere. That is, until Freddie Barrington comes to town to join his parents in the troupe. Freddie appears, somewhat prince-like, or at least very gentlemanly, when Mandy has had quite a fright, and helps her, through the rain and mud, back to the Towaninnie Pub where everyone is staying for the night. Of course, the two fall in love with one another at first sight, but Mandy is at least real enough to question if what she feels is genuinely love, even when she revels in the feeling of being loved.
No Tempest would be complete without a barbaric Caliban. Stormy Weather contains a very unique roguish prankster, known only as the rabbiter. He was orphaned as a boy and left to live in a hovel in the swamp, where he collects odd bits and pieces of machinery and makes his living by rabbit hunting. His greatest accomplishments have been mysteriously putting a Dodge up in a tree and building a giant kite out of the townspeoples' laundry, "the day all the people of the town gaped up in speechless wonder at the sight of their pilfered washing as it danced in gleaming splendor across the sky." Of course, he attempts to sabotage the concert, just to get a reaction out of the town. But, Caliban-like, he also has a respect for the compere, the only man who has recently taken time to have an intelligent conversation with the rabbiter, and who left him a great gift at the end of his visit in Towaninnie.
Each of the characters in the story are given enough space to show themselves fully, even though many of them don't have names. Some known simply as "the rabbiter," "the publican's wife," "the diviner" and such, the entire ensemble cast is a group of broken, melancholy, lonely souls, many with bitter hearts and others fleeing something in their past. It's that slowness of narrative at the beginning, something I initially resisted, that allows Meehan to explore each person and their thoughts and feelings and round out their characters.
Meehan's style is a poetic prose: breathless, lyrical, observant, sometimes simple and then profound. He frequently employs run-on sentences that -- at first -- seem like mere lists, but the reader realizes, when she has finished reading a passage, that a much more full-bodied and sensuous description has been consumed.
"Beyond the bar the music ran, beyond the tall façade of Tampions' Hotel, through the streets and past the tankstands and the kennels and the corrugated roofs, through the stopping pepper trees and over to the stations shacks and silo weighbridge, to coil in waves around the silo, to coil and rise, higher and higher, beyond all the roofs and gardens and telephone poles and netting dogyards and chicken coops of the town, to soar upon those magnificent wings that were the flights of sound, with Mandy's playing reaching to the whole, the shearing shed, the petrol agent's yard with his silver drum shining in the moonlight, the rich white of the scoreboard and the dull gleam of the footy sheds, and far above the saleyards, the yarded sheep still quivering in the wet, their ears now lifting to the strains of the voice and all the unfamiliar music that filtered through the treeguards, along the muddy track to where they waited in the darkness, beside the iron trucks."
In the end, I was quite pleased with this new adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The story has some key elements in common with the Bard's play, but Meehan's characters stick with me for different reasons than Shakespeare's do, and Stormy Weather certainly stands on its own. After spending a day or two with this short novel the reader might feel as though they, too, have just had a visit in a tiny Australian farmtown and become acquainted with a very human group of characters who might've been left as caricatures without the care of Michael Meehan.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 review
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Writers on the Road page on Michael Meehan
- Arcade Publishing page on The Salt of Broken Tears
- Flinders University review of The Salt of Broken Tears
- Arcade Publishing page on Stormy Weather
- The SPace ABC Arts Online review of Stormy Weather
- Boston Globe review of Stormy Weather
- Washington Post review of Stormy Weather (and other novels)
- Flinders University review of Stormy Weather
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About the Author:
Michael Meehan grew up on a wheat and sheep property in the Southern Mallee region of Victoria. He has studied at Monash and Cambridge Universities, and is a graduate in law from the University of Adelaide. Dr. Meehan is Head of the School of Literary and Communication Studies at Deakin University and is also currently Chair of Writers' Week for the Adelaide Festival 2001. His first novel The Salt of Broken Tears was published by Vintage in 1999 and won The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2000 New South Wales Premier's Awards. It was also shortlisted for the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the 2000 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. His second novel Stormy Weather was published by Vintage in 2000. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and son.