In “The Glad Shout” Alice Robinson skilfully navigates the competing demands of bringing a dystopian ecological disaster into focus while exploring the emotional lives of her characters with fierce intensity.
When Melbourne is deluged by rising water levels, Isobel fetches up in a refugee camp with her partner Shaun and young daughter Matilda. She struggles to survive the harsh conditions and the emotional strain of being reduced from a comfortable middle class life to appalling living conditions with an unreliable partner and a demanding little daughter. It is as though the ecological disaster strips away her emotional blinkers, forcing Isobel into extreme circumstances that throw her inner life into stark relief. She is forced to deal with crowds of fearful, sometimes threatening, people, to engage with and betray a new female friend, all while her relationship with her partner Shaun is placed under intolerable strain. Much of this strain relates to the struggles of parenting a young child, and the feeling that the burden falls on her.
Then again, it’s all well and good for her husband to play at being a hero. He’s autonomous, thanks to her. Why can’t he understand that, now that they have Matilda, neither of them gets to have time out – except by prearrangement, at the other’s expense? Time out for helping other people is no different, in terms of the labour it lumps onto her. What she wouldn’t give just for a moment alone to clean herself up without having to answer a million bloody inane questions. What she wouldn’t give for silence – the opportunity to inhabit and look after just one body, instead of two.
Interestingly, the two men who feature most in Isobel’s life, her husband Shaun and her older brother Josh, are remarkable for being unreliable, physically vulnerable, and absent from her life when she needs them most. Her response to both of them is a blend of intense love and deep frustration, and her dependence on them is a defining characteristic of her musings about men. The only significant male presence with any redeeming features is her grandfather Nonno, who is quirky and affectionate, but who also disappears when he returns to the country of his birth in his old age.
Isobel’s mother, Luna, is a real estate agent driven by social aspirations and the need for career success, while grandmother Karen is an affluent bohemian type. They are completely at odds with each other, and both command Isobel’s loyalty. They remain unresolved figures in her young life, and occupy the most emotional space in the novel. It is no surprise that the generational struggle is replicated with Isobel’s young daughter Matilda, resulting in strong feelings of guilt and inadequacy in mothering her.
When Shaun disappears on a rescue mission, and survival for Isobel and her daughter Matilda begins to look increasingly impossible, her innermost feelings about her mother, brother and grandmother and their interwined relationships bubble into consciousness, leading her to question the meaning of her life. These relationships are depicted with the intensity of a Helen Garner, although Isobel’s youth and naivety leaves a little more room for optimism for her future than is the case with Garner’s battle-scarred characters. The immediate “answer” to Isobel’s dilemmas is the primal need to save her daughter, to escape the increasing threats around her, and this requires all the strength and resilience she can find.
Speculative fiction brings to mind the old adage: “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” And it’s a brave novelist who goes into too much detail about imagined futures. So far as “The Glad Shout” is concerned, the details of this near future are provided with a intelligent parsimony, and Robinson strikes a fine balance between labouring to describe a new world as against leaving the reader puzzled about what is going on.