Book review: A Caravan Like a Canary by Sasha Wasley

(courtesy Pantera Press)

Most of the time, a road trip is am exciting thing, redolent with the promise of adventure, of time away from the everyday and the banal and perhaps a surprise or two tucked in there among the food and petrol stops and the kilometres ticking by at a rate of knots.

That’s certainly what a reluctant Tara Button, the emotional centre of Sasha Wasley’s evocatively-named A Caravan Like a Canary, is hoping for when her terminally-ill mother asks her to drive the old, dilapidated, bright yellow caravan (hence the title), forever stuck under tarpaulin in what was her grandmother’s backyard up to the north coast of Western Australia to the town of Elsewhere.

The odds are, at least as far as expectations go in Tara’s prematurely wearied existence – she’s only in her early thirties but so traumatic has her life been that she feels as if she’s lived twice as long – that it won’t remotely fit the romanticised view but at the urging of her rambunctiously unreliable brother Zac, who’s all charm and extremely limited follow-through, she decides for one to abandon her famous reserve and got for broke.

Coming along for the ride is Zac’s best friend Danh, the only one of her brother’s friends who Tara thought had any decency and substance, his aim to find some vaguely-referred to work up the coast while Tara and Zac go on a long-delayed visit to see their mum.

It’s a huge move for Tara; while Zac wafts through life with barely a thought or care in the world, charming everyone he meets and living each day as if it’s is life, consequences, be damned, assuming they’re even considered which they usually aren’t, Tara is the buttoned-down one, the one with the job at the police forensics lab, the person who saves for a car and works hard for a house deposit, the grown-up in a family where that sort of maturity feels exhaustingly thin on the ground.

“I knew it wasn’t fair. I knew Zac frittered his money away while I worked hard and saved up, I knew that he didn’t need that new TV, and I knew that the car wreck was his fault. And I also knew that wasn’t obliged to put him into the private clinic for a rehab stay. But how could anyone expect him to emerge from our childhood unscathed? He was broken and needed my help. And anyway, I loved his stupid face.” (P. 37)

Whatever Tara expected to happen on the trip, and honestly she’s pre-disposed ever since an undisclosed event in the family’s past after which things were never the same, to be a glass-half empty kind of person – given her family history and Zac’s present unreliability and propensity for creating messes that Tara always has to clean up – she did not expect bikies to be trailing them all the way up the coast, the heavy thrum-thrum-thrum of their engines acting as a sonically troubling portent of half-empty hopes dismally realised.

Nor did she expect to rediscover how much she loves the beach and the ocean, how alive and centred it makes her feel, nor how someone utterly unexpected can break through years of hardened defences and implacable resolve, to reshape you in ways you never thought possible nor knew you needed.

A Caravan Like a Canary is in many ways the story of what happens when someone finally, and with great uncertainty and trepidation, finally starts to live again.

To Wasley’s unending credit and in tribute to her inestimable skill as a writer of real insight and empathy, the journey that Tara embarks on, both actual and existential, is not presented as some sort of warm and cosy jaunt to a place of healing and vibrant new hope.

(courtesy Pantera Press (c) Trevor O’Sullivan)

Those elements are circling certainly, poking their head up every now and again to assure they’re alive and kicking, even if Tara is convinced she went to their funeral many years earlier at the tender age of 11, but as Tara, along with Zac and Danh, do battle with their own demons, bikies and what lies ahead when they finally see their mother in Elsewhere, she is as bedevilled, perhaps more so, by the haunting, jarring steps backward as she is cheered and curiously contented by the few that dare to push forward.

Tara is someone who long ago gave up on life, on it meaning anything other than a brutal, ragged one foot in front of the other march of dogged survival, but as the wondrously gritty and sometime uplifting A Caravan Like a Canary unfurls its wholly affecting narrative, rooted in real lived experience that does not give up its pain easily, she begins to grapple with who she was, is and might be in ways that feel wholly authentic, grounded and real.

Much of the inability to romp her way to the future lies in the very same road trip, along almost the same roads, taken a good twenty years earlier, the one on which her family as it was, ceased to exist and her emotionally shut down, socially isolated march to unfulfilling adulthood began.

There’s a lot happening on the road trip, and Walsey evokes it beautifully, investing A Caravan Like a Canary with a hope like scent of things that could possibly be before whisking them with a grim reminder of how things are, and in Tara’s haunted worldview, how they could very well stay.

“I blew out a breath. ‘ Danh, you and Zac helpfully pointed out my lack of a ‘life dream’ this afternoon. I’m drifting along, doing a job that bores me, avoiding my past, trying to keep my brother out of trouble. I make Zac cheese sandwiches at midnight. I don’t do enough recycling. I’m scared to break the law.’ I lifted my hands up in a helpless gesture. ‘What makes you think there’s some passionate soul hidden away in any of that?’

Danh caught the hand closest to him and held it in his, his eyes reflecting the dark light of the sea. ‘Because I’ve seen you at the beach.'” (P. 242)

Tender, moving and full of characters who burst from the page with ebullient carelessness or wracking pain and loss, and the longing for more, so much more, A Caravan Like a Canary is one of those novels that subsumes and envelops you in the very best of ways.

You desperately want things to go well for everyone concerned, save of course for the bikies, and for a while there Tara’s mum (she is drawn with such nuance and understanding that her transformation is a thing of affecting wonder), but so honest is the novel about the rock hard depth and enduring qualities of traumatic experience, and the way in which it holds us tight way beyond our capacity to handle it, that you wonder if it possibly can.

But hope springs eternal, even for someone as closed down as Tara, and as she, Zac and Danh speeds up the coast, and secrets get revealed and tender hopes of buoyant possibility make their presence felt, it begins to feel like maybe, just maybe, Tara’s long-suppressed dreams might come true, and do so, in ways she never saw coming (partly because she long since given up longing for them to make an appearance, anyway).

This is richly honest and harrowing story at times because it doesn’t minimise even for a second how damning pain, grief and loss can be, but A Caravan Like a Canary is also a joy to read, full of characters who make sense and whose humanity, good or bad, affects you profoundly, situations redeemed when you think there is no way they can be, and a grounded understanding of life and broken humanity that doesn’t see the shattering of existence peace and contentment as permanent and which dares to believe perhaps happy endings, even ones flawed as those the Buttons know all too well, might just come true.

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