There’s a delicate and quiet power in Patrick Cullen’s stories. As the title suggests, What Came Between focuses on the ten years between the 1989 Newcastle Earthquake and the Newcastle BHP Steelwork’s closure in 1999. They’re the major events that bracket this work, providing context, setting and external pressure, but this is a novel driven by character development rather than major events. The book’s title also refers to what came between one part of Laman Street and the other – the small scale place of the novel. Small in focus maybe – these people are neighbours and their lives intersect in passing moments – but the broader scale is the range of human emotion that Cullen delves into.
The novel takes the form of a series of twelve interconnected stories, all of which could stand alone. Indeed, a number of the stories were published in the Frank Moorhouse edited The Best Australian Stories as standalone pieces, and I was pleased to revisit them here. Taken as a group, the stories work seamlessly together, creating a web of interwoven lives, where a glimpse of an incidental character in one story becomes a complete story and main protagonist in another. Cullen rarely tells the reader what the characters are feeling or even what is happening. Instead, it is subtly inferred through spare dialogue, quiet activity, or almost imperceptible action.
There are three main couples around whom the work pivots, all living on Laman Street in Newcastle, NSW. There is Sarah and her husband Paul. There is middle-aged Ray and Pam, and there is the young Cate and Lucas. The couples live near one another and have small links between them: they pass each other, take tea together, or glimpse bits of one anothers' lives from the outside. Within each unit however, there are big things happening.
There are job losses and suicides, miscarriages, cancer, familial relationship struggles, infidelity, and a wonderfully detailed birth. Amidst it all is the lovingly depicted city of Newcastle, which functions as a character too. The ocean, Anne Von Bertouch’s gallery, the city centre, the old houses and units, and fauna are all present and richly presented. Almost more important than the major transitions in these lives are the impact of day to day living – the dust that fills the pores; the washing of clothing; the purchasing of art. What makes this work distinctive is the intensity of the narrative gaze. We learn about the characters through an almost anthropomorphic rendering of the natural world they observe. This, for example, is Luke, crossing a creek as he takes a break en route to Denman with his grandmother:
"The surface of the water was dark, reflective. A white-faced heron raised on thin leg and eased slowly forward narrowing its gaze at something beneath the surface. It made a slow augering movement with its head and then, startled, uttered a sharp guttural sound and raised its narrow beak as a dozen rosellas crashed in thte she-oaks overhead. The rosellas waved like flags from the thin branches, chattering to each other in a low electric crackle as they ground away at the oaks’ small cones." (43)
As the stories progress, we watch the characters struggle with the same things that we all struggle with – the large and small crises that make up ordinary lives, and a greater sense of the strength and weaknesses of humanity is revealed. What Came Between is a light-handed and tender depiction of a microcosm of life that illuminates the nature of humanity as a whole. Though these are completely ordinary, middle-class characters leading lives that we might be leading or our neighbours might be leading, they are people we won’t soon forget.