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Book Review: Unaccountable Hours: Three Novellas by Stephen Scourfield

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According to Storyfix’s Larry Brooks, the highest goal of storytelling is to write about something happening. On the surface, little appears to happen in the three novellas that make up Unaccountable Hours, and yet there’s a major transformation in each of the stories that occurs through the intense solitude of these lives. The introspection is so sharp as to be almost painful — taking us deep into the motivations, history and heart of the three main characters that make up the stories. Through methodical observation, reflection, and delicate motion through the natural world that surrounds the characters, the reader begins to perceive the transition, until the denouement comes with shock of recognition that hits like the ending of a poem — fast and powerfully.

The first story, “The Luthier,” follows instrument maker Alton Freeman as he leaves behind a music college scholarship to begin his personal apprenticeship in instrument crafting. His mission is one that proceeds organically through guitars and mandolin to violin, fusing his parents’ pain and disappointments with his own obsessive pleasure in the rendition of Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas by maestro Monica Erica Grenbaum. All of Freeman’s perceptions, from his father’s unyielding practicality, his mother’s thwarted musical capability, his wife Margaret’s quiet self-sufficiency, his daughter Spit’s own imbibement of the music that Freeman passes on, and the Western Australian enviroment that surrounds Freeman, come together to form the sensual voice of his instruments:

“There is a haunting contrast and conspiracy between the blood-red eartha nd china-blue sky of the Australian Outback. the red is almost edible, the blue almost imaginary. They are the organic and the textural, the liquid and the ethereal. They are opposites, companions. They are the two most perfect colours it is possible to put together. They cover the spectrum of need and emotion. (52)”

Through tragedy and false starts, Alton Freeman comes to realise his dream through this story, and what happens is a form of achievement and self-actualisation born of paying attention.

“Like Water” is written, primarily, in first person confessions by Matthew Rossi, a writer living part of the year in Rome and part of the year in Western Australia. These lives are almost opposite to one another, or Dyadic as Rossi puts it, with his Rome self “isolated from the water,” well dressed and polished, while his Western Australian self is inseparable from the sea, organic, and linked intimately with his childhood. Rossi is a solitary man, as indeed, are all the characters in Unaccountable Hours. On the West Coast of Australia, Rossi is drawn to a woman who swims every day at the beach — someone who “takes his mind off timescales.” This is important, not only because Beatrice Hansard is old enough to be Rossi’s grandmother, but because in his Australian existence, Rossi is acutely aware of the vanishing species — the  “sixth extinction,” that is going on around him.

The next story will pick up strongly on this theme, taking it to an extreme conclusion, but Rossi’s relationship with Beatrice becomes a symbiotic healing that transcends the prison of time. This healing extends to Rossi’s damaged sister Catherine, and reveals “The Secret,” those moments of knowing, transcending, and becoming one with the environment:

“I can feel the layers of me, of this life, growing underneath me, down through the water, to its weedy, sandy bed. Here in thsi deeper water, at this age, cmfortably off the back of the wave, but watching.” (122)

The third novella, “Ethical Man,” has strong references to the other stories in Unaccountable Hours. We feel the connection between biologist Bartholemew Milner with Alton Freeman’s father as they both take the same hard ethical line, closing the door on their own lives and drawing the “line in the sand” too sharply in their inability to compromise morality for emotion. There is also a nod to the second story as Milner is well known for his championship of The Sixth Extinction, an influential book published by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin in 1995 in which the main tenet is that Homo sapiens are causing a sixth mass extinction — one which will almost certainly wipe out ourselves. In “Ethical Man,” the fictionalised version of The Sixth Extinction was written by a Dr Leach and Graham Schindler, but otherwise the book, which Milner quotes at length, is the same as the Leakey and Lewin one. Where Milner differs from Freeman and Rossi is in his extremism. He’s unable to bend, to laugh, to change. Nevertheless, Milner comes close in his deep observation of nature — something that also links him to the other protagonists:

“The crushing silence. The pressure of the huge desert sky and its massive volumes of oxygen cruses into his inner ear and makes the blood ziss inside his head.. He can feel the redness of it on the back of his retina, just as the rougey late anfternoon washes all around him. the glowing light sprays his heart, which is already raw and exposed from the hours voyaging back through his childhood, to his father.” (291)

Although each of the novellas in Unaccounted Hours stands on its own as a complete story where the happening is a turning point in each of the protagonist’s lives, it is possible to read these as a complete single work. The thematic links that encompass setting, progression and arc align the stories in a way that collectively, the overall impact is even greater than that of the individual stories. Above all, this is a collection that celebrates stillness and reflection, man’s relationship with his environment, and the simultaneous beauty and pathos in each moment. 

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.