Sean Rabin. Wood Green. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-925336-08-5
Daniela Brozek Cordier
Sean Rabin’s novel Wood Green calls for an ecocritical appraisal, especially in response to the author’s deeply felt evocation of lutruwita-Tasmania. ‘Wood Green’ is the eponymous name of the novel’s setting. High on the verdant slopes of kunyani-Mount Wellington, Wood Green has a shop and pub, into which Rabin’s plot periodically ducks and weaves, but the settlement’s residents’ homes are well hidden amongst the trees. This includes that of an eminent writer, Lucian Clark, at whose house a young academic called Michael arrives:
[he] hefted his suitcase … so he could rummage through his clothes for a coat to keep him dry as he walked down the side of the house. … Mud and water filled his shoes as he squeezed past prickling plants, neglected garden tools and the trunks of giant gum trees that were either standing sentry over the old wooden home, or slowly encroaching upon it. Fallen bark and leaves gave a scent of sumptuous earthiness to the cold, quiet air, which Michael inhaled deeply (12).
Michael, who gained an academic post on the strength of a PhD on Lucian, has been hired to help Lucian, ‘recognise the parts of my life that were relevant to my work’ (41). Michael thinks he is there to help Lucian write his autobiography, but Lucian has other ideas. These unfold little by little in this well-paced, witty, intelligent and, in the end, surprising novel.
Rabin’s evocation of lutruwita-Tasmania as cold, wet and densely forested might be a little stereotypical, but Rabin puts the forests to good use. They play an important role as a place that inspires discomfort and even fear, but which, with Lucian’s guidance, Michael gradually comes to terms with. Soon after arriving he buys new boots, which are more suited to the place (89-93), and accompanies Lucian on long walks. They explore kunyani-Mount Wellington’s vertiginous slopes on forgotten trails. ‘Surrounded by such ancient trees, and standing on an enormous slab of metallic grey stone’ Michael eventually comes to feel,
… an urge to connect with the landscape. To interact with it more profoundly than just moving across its surface. He wanted to feel nature beneath his skin – in his blood – an interaction that would remove all sense of disconnection between himself and his environment. He was struck by… a wave of yearning … (192).
It is within such an emotionally and sensorially rich evocation of kunyani-Mt Wellington’s tall forests that Rabin sets the people of Wood Green. They are a small cast of characters who are, to a Tasmanian at least, reassuringly familiar, They are often startlingly well-read people who eke out their lives in the service industry, as taxi drivers and, in the case of Lucian’s lover, Maureen, a shopkeeper.
For those who live in Wood Green, life is self-contained and circumscribed by just a handful of buildings in homes deeply embedded in the forest. Quotidian activities revolve around the hearth – for Maureen, ‘the pot-bellied stove – its smell of hot iron and ash, and the late night warmth … made her feel more content and happy than at any other time in her life’ (254). Life involves the simplest routines and pleasures: cooking, companionship, and consuming music and stories. These are the kinds of things that have offered humans connection and contentment since the dawn of time. By reducing life in Wood Green to these, Rabin’s novel exposes the superfluousness of many aspects of our modern lives.
Indeed, Rabin goes as far as to make clear that Wood Green is quite disconnected from the modern world. ‘[N]either Lucian nor Michael [know] how to drive’ (313). Mobile phone reception is patchy and at Lucian’s there is no phone or internet at all, and Lucian ‘refuse[s] to correspond via email, fax or telephone’ (13, 17). Michael soon gives up his laptop to write by hand, like Lucian, and later only resorts to an old-style typewriter to prepare an advanced draft (40, 54). Not only does technology appear unnecessary at Wood Green, but so are ‘news and politics and where the local economy might be heading’ (269). Only Carl, a criminal, is interested in such things. The grand themes of human narratives, hinted at in references to Lucian Clark’s novels, dwindle and are reflected in a gently farcical manner; for example, in Michael’s search for his identity, and in the affair between Maureen and Lucian.
There is, however, another form of recreation enjoyed by the people of Wood Green, and it is perhaps the novel’s most disquieting aspect. It is intimately connected with Rabin’s style, which has a modernistic realism that suits Rabin’s mode of storytelling. Wood Green unfurls, fern like, with each leaf a different voice, spiralling back and repeating the pattern again and again. The use of internal discourse reveals the mind and experiences of the characters, and their normal humanness, lulling the reader into believing that things will happen naturally, predictably, and above all, realistically. This is how Rabin gets away with the novel’s surprising ending, making it seem completely believable.
Rabin’s style also enables him to expose not just his characters’ reasoning minds, but also their sensual and emotional minds. Such an approach is consistent with Barbara McClintock’s advocacy for a way of knowing the world through empathetic engagement (see Keller, 1983). It is particularly evident in Rabin’s descriptions of Michael’s and Lucian’s responses to music – they ‘lose their minds to a concoction of rhythms’ (152). It is also implied that readers might immerse themselves in writing in a similar way – Lucian suggests that: ‘[r]eal writing is music. So long as there’s a rhythm strong enough to lift the reader and carry them along, you can do whatever you want in a book’ (153).
Rabin’s writing is also suggestive of music reflecting nature’s strange chaos and harmonies. He writes of Lucian listening to a new CD:
He observed the interminable repetition of squawking, snarling and squealing gradually shift in nature to unveil the secret orchestration of the inner machine. And comprehended how the sweeping imagination inherent in the cyclical patterns and interlocking algorithms heralded the arrival of a stunning mutant beauty (234).
Earlier, Lucian had observed that ‘On the surface [a recording] might sound like noise, but underneath there’s a whole encyclopaedia of ideas at work’ (154). This seems, similarly, like a metaphor for observing nature – on the surface the natural world might seem chaotic, but observed closely whole networks of interrelationships and patterns may be discerned. And this, too, symbolises the networks of relations between Wood Green’s characters.
If exploring the mind’s response to music might help us better comprehend the workings of nature, in Wood Green, the mind–nature relationship is intimately connected to psychedelic drug use. The connection suggests a shamanic form of environmental consciousness in the novel. Michael’s tripping, with the guidance of shaman-like Lucian, makes him feel deeply connected to other lifeforms. Such an experience is consistent with Michael Pollan’s observation that certain hallucinogens contribute to a heightened awareness of other beings by inhibiting centres in the brain that control the ego. For example, Michael’s hallucinations are described thus:
Once the nausea and stomach cramps had died down a deeper appreciation for the forest and its role in the world had definitely manifested. There were patterns in the trees that he had never noticed before. And he could not deny the emergence of a palpable, textural connection between himself and all living creatures (101).
These experiences also seem to help Michael and Lucian overcome their fears about nature and surrender to it. This process includes letting go of their ego and the memories that reinforce their sense of self (e.g., 18–19, 54, 66, 86–87, 192–93).
Both Pollen’s and Rabin’s descriptions of tripping infer that the experience offers a person positive psychological outcomes, particularly an enhanced sense of connection or embeddedness within the living world and diminished fear of natural processes, including death. That these outcomes might be primed by the settings in which they take place and the guidance received, suggests, however, that such outcomes are not necessarily a given, and this makes Wood Green a little troubling for an ecocritical reader – while suggesting that such psychological insights can be gained through the use of certain drugs, the veracity of those insights is undermined by a niggling doubt about the extent to which they are actually meaningful. It might, therefore, be interesting to compare the effects of the kind of psychedelic tripping described by Rabin and Pollen with a similar but non-drug-induced journey such as Andrew Mottershead and Rebecca French’s Bushland. In this audience-immersive artwork, audience members lie in the bush and confront the prospect of death by listening to a spoken narrative detailing the processes that take place as the human body decays within the earth.
Regardless of such questions, Michael and Lucian’s experiences ultimately lead to the strange twist at the heart of Wood Green. This above all else in the novel, begs for a deeper ecocritical reading, but I will hold back from that, or I will seriously detract from the ending for those who haven’t read it. What I can say, though, is that Michael’s almost sycophantic relationship with Lucian sees him teeter at the edge of parasitism, but who is host and who is parasite, is not so clear cut. The relationship between the two is distinctly more-than-human. Lucian might, indeed, be seen as kind of Green Man, a little like Dead Papa Toothwort in Max Porter’s Lanny. He is both entirely natural and not to be feared, and yet, when viewed from a limited human perspective, truly wild and terrifying.
Wood Green is intellectually stimulating, sensually pleasing and delightfully entertaining. If you haven’t already read it, do.
Keller, E.F. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1983.
Porter, Max. Lanny. London: Faber and Faber, 2019.
Daniela Brozek Cordier was made by Tasmania’s wild and human places. She has taught English in Europe, been a guide on Tasmania’s Overland Track, worked in tourism and marketing, grown and sold plants, and was an environmental consultant for many years. She is principal of Bright South, which, among other things, publishes poetry and assists writers with marketing and promotion.