LOVE WITHOUT HOPE: LEARNING FROM RODNEY HALL
Love without Hope by Rodney Hall is a brilliant novel. It will entrance all readers and offers aspiring authors wonderful lessons on how to write well. Rodney Hall is a master of his craft. A writer who won the Miles Franklin award twice as well as many other literary awards. A writer who has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
In 2010 I listened with rapt attention when Rodney Hall gave the Thea Astley lecture at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, in which he called for a new culture of slow reading. And for writers, that is of course a culture that particularly lends itself to learning writing from reading.
During Rodney Hall’s Thea Astley lecture I sat next to Alex Miller whom I had just interviewed for my book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors. And when I confessed that I had never read any of Rodney Hall’s books, Alex Miller urged me to do so, saying that Rodney was not only a good friend of his, but also an outstanding writer. In the years since then, I was a bowerbird, searching for Rodney Hall’s novels in second-hand bookshops, and though it was not easy, I managed to find a few. These have been sitting in my bookcase of ‘so far unread’ books, until finally I had the time to read one of them: Love without Hope, published in 2007, which is Rodney Hall’s most recent novel – he was born in November 1935, which makes him 80 years old.
Some authors are great at writing voice, some at characterisation, some at evoking place, some at the use of language to beautiful effect. Rarely do authors manage to excel at all aspects of great writing. Rodney Hall does in Love without Hope and I can’t wait to read more of his work. So thank you, Alex Miller!
Reading Love without Hope can teach you how to write well in several respects:
- How to hook the reader from the very beginning
- Theme as a unifying force throughout the novel
- Characterisation and voice
- Creating a sense of place and community
- Using humour
- Title and inspiration from poetry
- Creating poetry and rhythm through language
Below I will highlight some of these aspects:
How to hook the reader from the very beginning
Love without Hope is a great example of how to hook the reader from the very beginning. It uses several of the techniques I listed in my previous blog posts 10 ways to hook your reader from the very beginning and Nine ways to direct your reader from the very beginning, but began to excite this reader even before the first sentence: first, with its dedication to Julian Burnside, the barrister who is best known for his human rights and asylum seeker advocacy, and second, with its epigraph from French philosopher and essayist Montaigne: You are not dying because you are ill. You are dying because you are alive.
The first few sentences of the novel itself immediately demonstrate the skills of a master at work:
Mrs Shoddy has been shouting for an hour. One mightn’t think she’d have the will, with all that has happened, yet she shouts. One mightn’t think she’d have the strength, brittle and old as she is, yet she shouts – and this shouting provokes a periodic chorus of responses, wailing and mockery from the unseen inmates out there in the dormitory.
The lines show a poet at work. Just feel the rhythm of the language. The lines bring a strong voice, an unusual beginning, a sense of the character and her predicament, and a sense of mystery and excitement for the reader.
A page later, Mrs Shoddy is delivered to the office and propped up, face to face with the Master in Lunacy. She thinks, surely his title ought to have been done away with a hundred years ago? This is nineteen eighty-three. This does not only provide some (gallows) humour, but also the location and the time when the book is set.
The passage continues: He doesn’t look up. He postpones contact with her blazing eyes. So, for her part, she must own the offence of her shameful condition, helpless with rage and humiliation, too hoarse to speak and too frightened to insist on her rights as a woman of sound mind, a woman wrongly detained. And here we have the major theme of the novel: injustice, in particular wrongful detention in a mental health facility, and the wrongful exercise of power.
Theme as a unifying force throughout the novel
The novel’s theme can easily be expanded from wrongful detention in a mental health facility to wrongful detention in general, and at the time when the novel was published in 2007, Australia had the ‘experience’ of David Hicks’ incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, and closer to home, refugees being placed in detention centres, both arguably wrongful, certainly raising ideas of injustice and the wrongful exercise of power.
Rodney Hall in Love without Hope is thus tackling a very important political subject, which positions him favourably in comparison with the majority of Australian authors who rarely tackle serious political or social issues. When they do, they often deny that this is what they are doing – one example is James Bradley, who denied at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival that his novel Clade was about climate change. I personally subscribe to the belief that authors do have an important role to raise important issues in their fiction, not to dictate to their readers, but to be thought-provoking and show them different perspectives and life experiences. In my recent blog post on THEME: CHILD SAFETY AND THE CHILD PROTECTION SYSTEM I highlighted two recent novels that do so with regard to that theme.
In Love without Hope Rodney Hall creates a cast of minor characters as a unifying force for his overarching theme of the wrongful exercise of power. Most of the minor characters either exercise power wrongfully or are subject to the wrongful exercise of power.
These characters are residents of the small rural town where Mrs Shoddy lived before her incarceration as a mental health patient. They include emotionally abusive husband Russell who is coupled with his anxious young wife Gail who seeks to comply with the demands of others. Rita, an elderly woman, likes to exercise control over other people and the running of the CWA. Greedy and sinister local district nurse Olga is scheming with a greedy real estate agent and juxtapositioned with Mrs Shoddy’s old GP, Dr Archibald Parker, who goes beyond the call of duty in his attempt to rescue his patient.
Creating a sense of place and community
Like M.L. Stedman in her novel The Light between Oceans, Rodney Hall in Love without Hope is masterful in evoking the physical geography of his setting, but also in creating a strong sense of the small rural town.
He does this by choosing characters who can be found in any small rural community: the local physician and district nurse, the CWA and its archetypal members, the real estate agent, and more, which serves to give readers a sense of recognition. This sense is enhanced by the savage sarcasm he employs in their characterisation, primarily through dialogue and inner thoughts, which will have you laugh out loud and prove instructive for how to write brilliant dialogue.
Title and inspiration from poetry
Given that Rodney Hall is also a poet, it is safe to assume that the title of his novel Love without Hope is inspired by Robert Graves’ famous poem of the same name:
Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.
And when I re-read those lines, I was struck by the realisation that the poem may well have inspired – or helped to inspire – the whole novel. We have a similarly hopeless love, we have the word imprisoned, we have flight and horse riding, we have a similar sense of humour. In a similar vein, reading poetry may inspire your future writing.