Thursday, 25 March 2010

Wonders of a Godless World by Andrew McGahan

Wonders of a Godless World tells the story of a mute orphan girl living and working in a run-down mental hospital on an unnamed tropical island dominated by a volcano. Despite having a strong affinity with the earth and an inexplicable ability to predict the weather, the orphan has little competence with language. The narrative shows the world through her eyes; how she struggles to comprehend the things that go on around her, or to make any sense out of her existence.

Late one night an ambulance pulls up and delivers the hospital's newest patient. Obviously a foreigner, the mystery man is comatose and his skin is badly charred all over. The doctors try everything they can to revive or animate him, but to no avail; he remains a vegetable. Out of all the mad, delusional, destructive & profane patients resident at the hospital, the foreigner is allocated lodgings with a dapper duke, a waifish virgin, a tragically beautiful archangel and a malicious witch. When the orphan starts to fancy that she hears the foreigner communicating with her in her head, all manner of strange phenomena begin to occur. The patients are in turmoil, the volcano erupts and everyone begins behaving strangely, leading to a series of unexpected and brutal deaths. The orphan, however, has connected with someone for the first time in her life - and he is taking her to places she had never even dreamed of. With the foreigner's guidance, she is learning about geography, outer space, science and self-love. What ensues is an exploration of the psyche, a journey into madness and an examination of the hidden realms of consciousness.

McGahan's style is strangely straightforward. I read an interview with him where he explained that the idea for this novel came initially from his desire to write a book with no dialogue; the character of the mute orphan who is barely able to communicate crafted out of this desire. I think it is the lack of dialogue and the innocence of the orphan's mind that makes for such easily flowing prose, allowing him to depict man and nature in this bizarre interplay with one another in a clear, energetic way. However, behind the lucid wording lurk the shadows of bigger concepts, like religion, death, sex and love; and while I enjoyed the strange plot twists and exciting pace of the story, I did feel that McGahan only just scraped the surface of the ideas he could have explored with this book.

From what I understand Wonders of a Godless World is a stylistic about-turn for McGahan, which makes me curious to read some of his other work. He has won many awards (including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for his novel The White Earth) and is considered one of Australia's finest modern authors. If you're looking for a riveting story about identity, madness and the forces of nature, this one's for you.

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