Looking beneath the surface

Looking beneath the surface

Night Fishing, Vicki Hastrich, Allen and Unwin.

Night Fishing is about, among other things, looking. Vicki Hastrich describes how when her novel-writing stalled she tried writing essays. A former TV camera operator, she describes writing essays as like her previous career, in that they both seek a suitable frame and play with focus and depth.

Night Fishing is a collection of sort-of essays, and sort-of memoir, personal and exploratory, as through the chapters we get to know about her life around the drowned valleys of Brisbane Water, north of Sydney, where she holidayed as a child and where she now lives. Imagine asking someone to show bits of their life through objects – family photos, a grandfather’s hat, favourite books and paintings, an old Scrabble board – and you get an idea of what it’s like to read her wide-ranging work. And at the core is observation, a taking-in of the world that uses more than just eyesight. At one point she describes the ‘windless days up the coast’ as so perfect she could eat them.

In his intriguing book On Trails, Robert Moor writes that it is a mistake to compartmentalise the human and non-human worlds, and a healthy attitude to them both requires holistic attention. Hastrich likewise writes about what we think of as the natural world and art as linked portals to meaning, not contrasting realms (just like the so-called natural and spiritual). She meditates on the tendency of baroque art to try and cram into the frame what it’s like to experience the natural world in all its fecundity and exuberance. But she cautions that baroque artists were deficient in a way, thinking they could do this, because art communicates more through glimpses, as does nature. (Like, we might add, the spiritual, the experience of which is captured metaphorically in the story of Moses glimpsing God on Mt Sinai.)

A metaphor for all this is the stingray she describes cruising the floors of Sydney Harbour at night, below the city lights glittering off the surface water. The title of her book refers to an expedition across the waters of her home at night, and how beyond the human world is a richness of other lives. There is something in this that recalls God’s words to Job – that despite all human knowledge and science, there are other parts of the world we are not aware of, or more to the point, we don’t experience and don’t directly observe, a prompt to both humility and wonder. But the point of the stingray is that this is closer than we sometimes think.

She looks into the depths of bays through a bathyscope, like, she says, Galileo scanning the heavens. Her own explorations thread with the stories of other explorers, such as the novelist Zane Grey, a big game fisherman who had an imagination for what is out in the oceans, in the non-human world, but who also foresaw that those places would be overrun. The painter Goya provides a darker example of someone unflinching in observation, who exposed the human tendency to destruction.

At the Sydney Boat Show Hastrich observes that it is natural to covet, but also to dream, to let the imagination roam. But while others eye off glittering and expensive cruisers she requires simply a tinnie, to get her out onto the water, where the open space prompts her not to analysis, but to being receptive to what the glinting surface might suggest about what’s underneath.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com

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