I was a little wary of Gail Jones’ new novel, having been somewhat disappointed by A Guide to Berlin a few years back. All the poetic elegance of Sorry and Sixty Lights was present and correct but it felt a bit strained to me. The Death of Noah Glass flows much more smoothly. When the eponymous art historian is found drowned, his children find their own ways of coping – or not coping – with a grief complicated by the suggestion that their father may have been involved in something nefarious. Encompassing a multitude of themes, Jones’ novel explores the circumstances that led up to Noah’s death.
Martin and Evie rarely see each other. They have little in common besides their father. After his wife died in the early years of their marriage, Noah had taken his children to live close to her family. They became the centre of his life, yet they never knew it. Stunned by his death, each tries to find a way to the other, yearning for the connection they shared in their childhood. Evie moves into Noah’s flat ostensibly to clear it but hoping to find the essence of him there. Martin takes off for Sicily where Noah had spent three months shortly before his death, apparently to investigate the implication of Noah’s involvement in an art theft but desperate to try to understand the man he feels he hardly knew. There he meets Dora with whom Noah had fallen deeply in love and with whom he became embroiled in a scheme to wreak revenge on the criminals who murdered her father.
These are the bare bones of this beautifully wrought, erudite novel which encompasses themes of art, love, grief and family with a slim thread of suspense running through it. Noah’s story is woven through Evie’s and Martin’s, slotting them into the context of their motherless childhoods and his own difficulties as the son of missionaries while disclosing details of his time in Sicily to which his children will never be privy. It’s a complex piece of fiction, carefully assembled and exquisitely executed. Jones’ descriptions of Sicily, seen through Martin’s painterly eye, are particularly vivid and her evocation of the loneliness and dislocation of grief eloquent:
Goats’ heads hung suspended above huge trays of offal. Swordfish were displayed in an arc, balanced among gigantic pink octopuses and rows of lustrous fish. Blood oranges, cut open, forests of emerald broccoli.
And so Evie and Benjamin, both reticent and private, both wretched, in some ways, with the experience of loss, began to speak to each other.
I was reminded a little of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved which, coming from me, is high praise indeed.