A gripping mystery, a thoughtful portrait of friendship, and a love song to the natural world.
Sally Piper describes her new novel The Geography of Friendship (UQP 2018) as a story about female friendships, bushwalking and predatory men, and that is indeed what she gives us: a tight and tense narrative of a chilling bush hike, set above the exploration of deeper themes of identity, feminism, fear, cruelty, self-preservation, guilt and revenge.
Samantha, Lisa and Nicole, now in their forties, were once best friends. As thirteen-year-olds, they had each other’s backs; they were united, loyal and devoted. But when, in their twenties, they embark on a bushwalk in an isolated location, and experience a frightening encounter with a stranger, their actions – and their reactions – lead to a rupture in their relationship that is never healed. Now, twenty years later, they decide to return to the scene of their previous trauma, and to again hike the same terrain. But nothing is the same, and everything has changed. As each woman replays the past, reviewing and questioning her own decisions and choices, it becomes ever more evident how that past has come to haunt each of them, and to irrevocably change the course of their lives.
The strengths of this book are threefold: the intimacy and specificity of the language around nature; the page-turning sense of suspense; and the ruminative and thought-provoking inner dialogues of each of the women.
Sally Piper is a keen bushwalker and nature-lover, and this is evident in her writing of this book.
‘Soil, root, branch – each provides her with a welcome disconnect from the human world; they feel kinder, more generous, and the demands they make upon her are of her own design, unlike the demands other people make. In this way gardening soothes her, allows her to let her guard down, to be someone else.’
It is clear that she has walked in these women’s footsteps, that she has experienced herself the bone-weariness of trudging up mountains and across wet sand, the aches and pains of a body crying out for rest, the sting of blisters, the unexpected hurts from unfamiliar packs and straps and weights. She has walked these trails and traversed these paths. With a keen eye for observation and a writer’s ability to notice small details, she has collected a wealth of knowledge about flora and fauna, from the shade of a flower’s bloom to the hunched quarters of a kangaroo, from the sound of a possum thumping to the touch of a fly supping from perspiration droplets, from the ever-changing colour of the sky and the ever-changing shapes of the clouds to the sensory overload of sounds and smells of the bush.
‘… the melaleucas shed their paperbark like onion skins to reveal a soft sunrise of colours beneath. The way the red throats of Mistletoe birds shone like cherries in the trees.’
She takes us right there, to that place. We are walking with these women, placing our feet in their footsteps, passing the brush broken by their progress, sensing the night and its secrets settling about us. Nature – and specifically, the setting of this place – is a character in this book. ‘These trees huddle together like kin.’ Nature is timeless, always moving and growing. Nature throws up obstacles for mere humans, and closes over us after we have passed. Nature is both welcoming and hostile, both relaxing and confronting, both haven and threat.
‘Craggy headlands push into the sea from north to south and granite-strewn mountains fold away to the west. And the ocean, that enormous piece of rumpled silk, rolls in from the east.’
The narrative pull of this story is such that despite the immersion into the inner thoughts of these three women, we are compelled to turn the pages more and more quickly as the tension ratchets up. The novel tells two stories simultaneously – the initial hike, with its tragic consequences, and the second, later hike, with all that it represents. The two are separated by the expected changes that twenty years bring to a once isolated bush reserve, with the advent of more tourists and improved facilities and signage, and the difference between the equipment the girls take on their first hike and the items they have on their second trip. And the women are changed too; no longer naïve and vulnerable girls, they are now jaded and damaged adults. But it is the creeping menace of this story that is most compelling – the urgent sense of dread, the thrill of the unknown, the sinister presence of the strange man, and the building sense of impending doom.
‘So here she is, back in a place she never wanted to see again, surrounded by a bushland she only remembers as hostile.’
We are never sure, until the final pages, who will be the most damaged, and how; never certain who – if anyone – might escape unscathed.
And finally, it is the women themselves who engage us – we are given first person perspectives from all three women as they recall their memories of the first expedition and live their second attempt. As they hike, they think back over their lives and their choices, their work and families, their good and bad behaviour. They contemplate how their lives might have been different.
In Sally’s words, this is a novel about the spaces that women are taught not to trespass into, and about what happens when they break those rules. It is about women limiting themselves because of society’s expectations around risk and threat, and about what this does to a woman’s psyche, always being aware of these boundaries. This is a book that thinks deeply about the space women occupy in the world, and the space occupied by men, and the overlapping circles of trust and authority. It is about unbridled, impotent anger and rage; about the disappointment of being forced to choose safety. It is a call to arms for women to wrest back control of our bodies and our fates, to live large and demand more from those around us. And it is indeed a book about female friendships, from schoolyard mates to adult bonds – an intimate examination of how and why those friendships form, develop, lag or flourish; about how women think of each other and care for each other, how jealousies and insecurities tear at the fabric of friendship, and how loyalty, courage and dependability bind together.
But despite the relationship between woman and land, and the relationships between the friends themselves, perhaps the biggest message in this book is about self-identity and self-care and the protection of self against the threats of the world. Each woman in this story must face her own demons and chase down her own regrets; each must reconcile her past with her future.
‘Because soon enough they reached the point on the circuit where it was as far for them to go back as it was to continue on.’