Jan Borrie. Verge. Molonglo Press, 1998. ISBN: 1876827033.
Hannah and Alister sit on Mount Ainslie at night, watching the lights of the traffic heading north out of Canberra. Their families think they are aimless and drifting, but one day Hannah and Ashley will be among those cars on the Federal Highway. Escaping. From this vantage point, Hannah can believe that nothing is inescapable. What they are running from is not so much Canberra, but Canberra as the place where their respective demons found them.
Each night, Hannah and Alister each wait for their individual monsters. Hannah’s protection is the light—if she can see the face that comes searching for her, she may be able to keep him at a distance, and someone may hear her cry out. For Alister it is the reverse. In total darkness, his night creature perhaps cannot find him. Neither of them will be caught unawares again.
Somehow Alister and Hannah have found each other, and found a measure of confidence and protection in each other. It will be some time before they each find confidence in themselves. They have each allowed their worlds to narrow until it is only the two of them. Friends and family drift away, misunderstand them, stop asking them to be part of the wider world.
Borrie uses Canberra’s geography to continually evoke Hannah’s sense of being trapped. Seeing beyond the usual lame joke about a city of roundabouts, Hannah sees:
a series of curves and loops on the map, and the whole city becomes a graceful, twisting pattern of roads, the rounded edges of suburbs pushing out on the map like spilled liquid running between the higher hills and green spaces, pooling around the base of the mountains, moving out and away from the centre of the circle.
The loops and curves of the city enmesh Hannah, seeming to present a way out but in the end curving back on themselves. So too, the forest roads that go nowhere, which send Hannah and her family home again to Kaleen after weekend drives to Coppins Crossing and the Cotter.
As for Judith Wilkes in Turtle Beach, the surrounding hills form a barrier around Hannah’s Canberra, “the long, sleeping body of the Brindabellas guards the western horizon from the eyes of the city…holding from us a view of something else, something I want to see”. From her view on top of Mount Ainslie, though, Hannah comes to understand that the city, and perhaps also her fear, is “conquerable”.
The chapters of Hannah’s life run in fits and starts, like the city that stops for the night after the movies and the Terrace Bar, the merry-go-round and the Pancake Parlour. Autumn leaves “seem to catch fire”, and the mountains turn silver-blue as the seasons turn on Hannahs’ life, the lives of her friends, as she waits to escape, watches others do so.
I find myself wanting to reproduce whole pages of Verge here, to share with you its beautiful writing. Similar and still very different to Alex Miller in The Sitters, Verge is floating and dreamlike. The cover blurb, as well as a review of another book of Borrie’s use the word ‘lyrical’ to describe her writing, and I do find it difficult to find a better one. Hannah’s despair is made poetic, the shocking made bearable, perhaps, by the slow, detached lyricism of Borrie’s prose. So indulge me a bit further with a few paragraphs that capture Hannah’s feeling for Canberra:
We turn away from the city of monuments and offices and important, peopleless buildings and lookouts and curving, circular streets and shopping malls and orderly rows of houses and orderly, human-made lakes and picture postcard sunsets and long, breathless twilights.
We leave the view from Mt Ainslie, the futile maze of roads into the mountains, the biting cold winters and the sharp, dry heat of summer, the picturesque divisions of autumn and spring, which the tourists come to experience.
We leave a city that always seemed to me to be just a series of landmarks–the entire city a landmark, symbol of something important to someone, but never a home to me.