Wonders of a Godless World
Andrew McGahan, Allen & Unwin
It’s possible Andrew McGahan over-extended himself with this fable-like book set in a mental institution at the bottom of a volcano on a tropical island and with a central character who is a mute orphan.
Exhibiting a sharp change in tone and genre from his previously acclaimed books (Praise, Last Drinks, White Earth), Wonders of a Godless World certainly asks readers to extend themselves — and this reader almost to breaking point — to negotiate a strange world where the orphan astral travels with the foreigner (a coma patient in the mental institution).
These journeys prime the orphan about natural and psychological forces and leave her questioning the foreigner’s morality.
She must also decide if she can continue to go along with his scheming.
The witch, the duke, the virgin and the archangel all live in the same institution as the orphan, which she helps to clean in return for her keep. But what is her responsibility to them, her odd-ball community?
If you want marvellous descriptions of weather and other geological forces, or if you enjoy fantasy-style stories that go well and truly over the top, then Wonders of a Godless World might be a good book for you.
If, however, you want well-developed characterisation and plausible, intriguing plotlines, I confess I didn’t find them here.
The foreigner tries to comprehend the violence of the world: “those moments when the natural forces turn on man and destroy him so casually”. Stripping these moments of their mystery, he thinks, will also strip them of their terror and power over him.
It’s a brave and delusional quest and — like McGahan’s own quest to write a very different novel to those he wrote previously — not well realised.
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