Dorothy Horsfield. Venom. Pandanus Books, 2005. ISBN: 1740761790
We tend to think of Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory synonymously, but in reality the city of Canberra takes up only a small part of the land mass of the ACT. Even setting aside the sliver of coast at Jervis Bay which remains part of the Territory (for now, anyway), about 46 per cent of the ACT is taken up by the Namadgi National Park. The Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is significantly smaller, but also contributes another goodly chunk. Then there’s Brindabella National Park and the Bimberi Nature Reserve.
We aint called the Bush Capital for nothing. The other night driving home from the theatre I had to dodge a fox on Adelaide Avenue and a kangaroo on Streeton Drive. Neither of these are particularly uncommon occurrences. One creature that I haven’t encountered, indeed, which I thought I had left behind forever in Sydney, is the funnel-web spider. Turns out they are here too, although apparently they aren’t so easy to find, if Dr Paddy Jones’ research is anything to go by.
Paddy has taken a diversion from the usual work of the CSIRO Forestry division at Yarralumla to concentrate on identifying and describing the species of funnel-web in the Canberra region. He hires single mum Madeleine as his research assistant, and the pair spend Saturdays combing the bush for those elusive specimens.
Their relationship is hesitant and self-conscious at first, dotted with misunderstandings and embarrassments, as each of them tries to work out what the nature of their attraction might mean and where their friendship might head. It’s not very surprising, then, that Madeleine’s ex, Doug, misconstrues the rapport between them, and plots revenge.
Venom is really about relationships. Tentative, awkward ones like Madeleine and Paddy’s. Twisted, poisonous ones. The instant and eternal relationship between mother and child. Unlikely but solid ones. But these relationships happen in a landscape, and many of the relationships in Venom happen in the bushland of the ACT.
It was weeks before Paddy again raised the issue of an overnight camp-out. The next half-dozen Saturdays were spent in fruitless hikes through Namadgi and the Tidbinbilla Reserve and the next couple along overgrown trails beside the Murrumbidgee River. Their expeditions involved an unvarying routine — a walk to a designated spot, an hour or so’s meticulous search through an area of bush, then a cuppa over a camp fire. As the weeks wore on and they achieved nothing, Madeleine’s confidence waned. It wasn’t simply that, despite her dutiful reading of Paddy’s research file, she had no idea how to find the fabulous funnel-web. She also suspected that the good doctor might be a rank amateur like herself.
But already they were friends of a kind and she looked forward to their afternoons together.
While Madeleine and Paddy are sweeping the bush for spiders, Madeleine’s ex-partner inhabits the poisonous atmosphere of the parliamentary triangle, the landscape much more often associated with Canberra. When he and Madeleine first arrive in Canberra they find a home in Yarralumla,
close to the high-rises that passed as the capital’s city centre and close as well to the lake’s foreshore with its forests and the sparse sheep paddocks that people referred as parkland. And, in a city of manicured lawns and hedges, the house’s big back garden was wildly overgrown and various.
This is a middle ground. Madeleine finds herself here, somewhere between Doug’s muckraking at the Press Club and Paddy’s denial of economic and political reality on the bike paths crossing the Molonglo at Scrivener Dam. She is looking for a model that works for her of what a marriage, a long-term relationship might be, and she’s not finding it. It’s not in her parents’ marriage, and not in her own short-lived relationship with Doug. She’s also looking for answers to her relationship with her father, and with Doug. What did each of them recognise in the other that she has missed? Perhaps the spiders have the answer.