In publishing it is sometimes said that an author has made it when their name is larger than the title on the book’s cover.
If that’s true, then Steven Carroll has certainly arrived: it’s hard to find the title of his latest novel, almost hidden under his large family name.
Carroll is one of the most interesting and distinctive Australian novelists, past or present, and he likes to work on a large canvas: The Year of the Beast is the sixth, and he says ‘‘final’’ novel in his sequence tracing the lives of a family from the Melbourne suburb of Glenroy.
In an essay appended to the novel Carroll declares that the sequence is based on his own family, and argues for the value of fiction since it provides insights that history cannot. Ironically, the final novel is a prequel, the first in the series, and is not set in Glenroy.
In the year in which The Year of the Beast takes place, October 1917-November 1918, Glenroy is still bush outside the city of Melbourne. The central character is Maryanne, 39, a pregnant single woman whose attitudes are ahead of their time. She will not give in to the sense of scandal associated with her unmarried, pregnant state, and this helps her lose her Catholic faith. In her imagination others see her as even worse because the absent father is German-born.
The period is that of the so-called ‘‘Great War’’ and the conscription debate that divided Australia sharply and sometimes violently; the opposite sides aligned with the PM, Billy Hughes, or Australia’s most famous religious leader, Daniel Mannix, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. It also sharply divided Australia, for the only time in its history, between Protestants and Catholics.
Maryanne’s defiant independence is a strength but it produces a solitariness that will run through the family.
The Year of the Beast is a notable work; it covers many ideas, and personalities, showing the complexities of apparently ordinary lives, and places them convincingly in the context of larger social and philosophical issues. The Year of the Beast ends the Glenroy sequence while remaining true to Carroll’s sense that history is always with us and within us, human propensities never change, and stories never really end.
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