Between the Covers
Wonders of a Godless World
Andrew McGahan is a writer who is always pushing boundaries. I have read all but one of his previous five novels and each was memorable and unique. He is probably best known for the Brisbane-grunge story Praise, which became a movie, and his Miles Franklin Award-winning The White Earth. Perhaps disconcertingly for his fans, when you pick up a new McGahan book, you have no idea what you will get.
With Wonders of a Godless World, he gives us a brain-stretching reflection on our universe and the human mind. McGahan originally set out to write a story with no human characters, using only the forces of nature to drive the plot. Realising that this worthy ambition wasn’t going to work, he found the next best thing – a mute woman and a man in a coma. As you might expect, there is no real dialogue in the book.
Set in a Gothic mental hospital on an unnamed island, the story brings us a strange cast of inmates including The Orphan, The Duke, The Archangel and The Virgin. These all appear to be archetypes which illustrate an aspect of the human condition. This gives the story a mythical quality.
The arrival of a newcomer, The Foreigner, to the asylum creates a ripple that becomes a storm. The mute woman, The Orphan, finds she can communicate with The Foreigner although he is in a coma. His influence over her and the other inmates is a dark thread that pulls the reader on. Nature’s glory and destructiveness does play a big part. A volcano erupts, a comet heads towards Earth, a dam bursts. The Orphan is able to predict the exact course of these natural events.
McGahan is not one for flowery writing – raw emotion is his usual modus operandi. He is also not afraid to tackle some big topics – our relationship with our planet, mind control, madness and sanity for starters. I found this book gripping, strange and rather mind-bending. It was hard to know what was ‘real’ and what ‘imagined’.
Wonders of a Godless World probably isn’t for everyone, but if you like to see writers taking risks and playing with the limits of fiction then give it a go. It is an impressive work of imagination and, personally, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.