Steven Carroll – the year of the beast

Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Australia 2019

In his Notes for a Novel essay at the end of the year of the beast, written when he was halfway through writing this book, Steven Carroll explains that the Glenroy series was originally intended as a single book but that 20 years on the Glenroy novels now number six. They span 60 years of Australian history but have been produced in no particular order and do not rely on one another as a series from the reader’s point of view.

 Chronologically the first of the series, the year of the beast is set in 1917  in Melbourne, with the backdrop of the divisive conscription referendum. Its central character is Maryanne, mother of Vic (the engine driver pivotal to the series) and she is based on Carroll’s grandmother, Maryanne Carroll.

Whilst I always find the notes and acknowledgements sections of books illuminating and interesting, I am glad not to have read this before reading the novel itself. To be able to read the story as it stands is as important to me as looking at a work of art without explanation of the discourse that preceded and informed it.

I have read just three of Steven Carroll’s 12 books, a lack I will correct as the year goes on. I came first to Momoko and then A New England Affair. What struck me most about both of these was the author’s insight into the way women think. ‘How does he do it?’ I wonder.

Of course then there is his immaculate prose. He writes beautifully – I can’t think of another way to say this that will add anything to the string of praise one can find for his much awarded and nominated works.

In the year of the beast Carroll uses a technique of repetition as a story telling device, almost like a Gregorian chant. There is musicality in his writing.

In the year of the beast, Carroll’s focus on the remarkable Maryanne and her equally remarkable sister Katherine carries us through a complex social narrative, not quite unconsciously but without too much blatant ‘look what I’m doing, telling you the history of Australia’.

I have no doubt it will drive readers to discover more about the women’s peace movement and the workings of church and state of the time.