The World Beneathby Cate Kennedy
“Written in precise and singing prose, [Kennedy’s] powerful first novel . . . [is] a work of mythic depth, lyrical description, and gripping suspense.” —Adelaide Advertiser
The first novel from acclaimed author Cate Kennedy, whose “prose, line by line, is sharp, evocative, and often poetic” (The New York Times Book Review), is a compassionate and unswerving portrait of a broken family whose members go to extraordinary lengths to reclaim their lives and relationships from the mistakes of the past.
Fifteen years after their volatile breakup, Rich and Sandy have both settled into the unfulfilling compromises of middle age: he’s a late-night infomercial editor with photojournalism aspirations; she makes outdated hippie jewelry for a local market and struggles to maintain a New Age lifestyle that fails to provide the answers she seeks. To distract themselves from their inadequacies, both Rich and Sandy cling to the shining moment of their youth, when they met as environmental activists as part of a world-famous blockade to save the Tasmanian forests.
Their daughter, Sophie, has always remained skeptical of her parents’ ecological fairy tale, but when Rich invites her on a backpacking trip through Tasmania for her fifteenth birthday, Sophie sees it as a way to bond with a father she’s never known. As they progress farther into the wilderness, the spell of Rich’s worldly charm soon gives way to Sophie’s suspicion and fear as his overconfidence sets off a chain of events that no one could have predicted.
A story of forgiveness and survival, The World Beneath plumbs the depths of family and courage through characters who will learn that if they are to endure, they must traverse not only the secret territories that lie between them, but also those within themselves.
“Kennedy delivers her characters with unnerving accuracy—the disdain of a teenager, the searing frustration of a man whose life has passed him by—while the Tasmanian wilderness looms as vividly as anyone else on the page.” —Time Out (Sydney)
“Kennedy evokes a more lyrical version of Jodi Picoult . . . hitting the reader with raw, heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious prose. . . . A wise and graceful debut novel . . . Kennedy is an author to watch.” —Library Journal
“In elegant, fluidly written prose, Kennedy not only delivers scathing portraits of the ineffectual adults and the times that shaped them, but also makes the epic wilderness another vividly rendered character in the story. A gripping debut.” —Booklist (starred review)
“The pitfalls of nostalgia and the disappointment of everyday life contrast sharply with the ravishing Tasmanian landscapes Kennedy is excellent at painting, along with interpersonal terrain.” —Publishers Weekly
“A very effective blend of social comedy and lyrically precise naturalism. . . . Kennedy writes like an Antipodean Anne Tyler, wryly aware of the heart’s internal contradictions yet slow to judge. Subtle allusions to the myth of Persephone add another level to this impressive tale of self-reliance and self-delusion.” —Adrian Turpin, Financial Times
“A thoughtful debut novel reminiscent of Hornby . . . Well-observed and thoughtfully funny . . . Life, Kennedy suggests, is largely resistant to our schemes and resolutions. Faced with the realities of both the natural world and our thorny personal relationships, we need more than good intentions.” —Laura C. J. Owen, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“An intricately written novel with an ironic eye for modern vulnerability in the face of a primordial wilderness.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Kennedy’s wilderness is the freezing, rain-soaked Tasmanian mountains, with their blazing red fagus trees and bizarre, secretive wildlife. It’s a bewildering heart of darkness. . . . [A] bracing, unsentimental, and often very funny full-length debut . . . [that follows] the spiky, uncompromising Sophie, forced to find reserves of strength and forgiveness for her two infuriatingly childlike parents.” —Patrick Ness, The Guardian (UK)
It was the broken-resolution end of January already, and Sandy was sitting in the kitchen drinking decaffeinated coffee with her oven’s green, digital-clock display panel flashing, if you could believe it, HELP HELP HELP instead of the time. Last night, full of the beady-eyed purpose a late-night joint always gave her, she’d stood there trying to reprogram it to bring the clock back without making the bloody oven alarm go off, pressing and fiddling and relighting the stub of her roach, until finally she’d sworn at it and given up.
So now it was signalling her for help. Her oven, for crying out loud. An appliance.
And even though she couldn’t fix the timer, the clock still ran with a snickering whirr, a nasty little calibrated sound of time mouse-wheeling itself determinedly away, even if she was sitting here marooned in the long slack middle of the afternoon, picking hard candle wax off the tablecloth and waiting for the caffeine rush that would never come.
Sandy raised the mug awkwardly in her left hand and took another sip. She was right-handed but her friend Alison had made these mugs on her new pottery wheel a few years back and Sandy had loyally bought them, and there were fragments of grit embedded in a dribble of glaze on the other side, just at the point where you sipped. Just one little gravelly flake of grit, but enough to drive you nuts. It was hard enough picking the things up with the lumpy handles Alison had stuck on. Proletariat cups, Sandy would think as she washed them roughly in the sink, hoping to break one so that she could justifiably throw it out. Nothing would kill them. They were made to withstand a revolution.
She’d recognised the handwriting as soon as she’d fished the envelope out of the mailbox, felt that little twisting jump of tension. No return address, of course. And inside, just a postcard, one of those free ones you get in coffee shops, with his message scribbled on the back.
Would like to ring Sophie for her fifteenth birthday. Please let her know. I’ll call around 6.30 your time. Hope life is treating you well. And a mobile number. That was all. As if he was paying by the bloody word.
Was life treating her well? Sandy frowned, lifted a splatter of candle wax with her fingernail from the batik cloth. Everybody seemed finally to have accepted resignedly that this was the state of play, she thought: you let life happen to you. In it came like a party-crasher, ignoring any plans you might have had for yourself, and treated you to whatever it had in mind.
And you just sat there and took it. Nobody ever said, for example, how have you been treating your life? which made you sound a bit less passive, at least. Maybe that could be the start of an article, something she could write for the community-centre newsletter, or even the local paper.
Did he really have to be so terse, even in a postcard? Not that his brusqueness surprised her—that was Richard all over, exactly as she remembered. Hope life is treating you well would be just what she would have expected—one of a couple of careless, studiously distant sentences as if he’d spoken to her last month instead of about five years ago.
Sandy, in uncharitable moments—and OK, these surfaced occasionally, she was the first to admit—believed that Rich did this on purpose. Whatever he was doing now, and God knows he was evasive enough about that, he made a point of being somewhere exotic around Christmas and Sophie’s birthday, just so he could write things like Greetings from Dharamsala! or Not sure if this will get to you, boat’s not docking in Borneo till next week.
Like this one: 6.30 your time. Please. As if he had to calculate time zones. Like he was going to call from bloody Bhutan.
She hoped the romance was a deliberate, manufactured illusion, hoped he was, in reality, writing from his dead-end job or cramped bedsit. She should have paid attention to the postmarks over the years, except that sometimes Sophie made a point of casually collecting the mail around her birthday and Christmas before she did, so she didn’t have a chance.
She’d laid the whole thing on the line for Sophie, early on.
“He walked out on us when you were just a tiny baby. So don’t go expecting anything from him. Put him out of your life, like I have.”
And for years Sophie had given her that inscrutable child’s look and shrugged, even though Sandy was sure she kept all those cards, with their pathetically non-committal messages, hidden away somewhere. Hanging onto something. Some possibility. And then last year, when Sophie had been turning a scary fourteen, she’d stunned her by saying, “If you’ve put him out of your life, why are you always talking about him?”
>She had felt herself blustering, hot suddenly. “I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You do. When all your friends are here. You’re all shouting to get a word in about who’s got the worst ex.”
Just doing her obstinate best to get under her skin about something that was patently untrue. She imagined all those cards somewhere, wrapped up in a box under a journal, maybe. Although Sophie had become so coolly cynical this last year it was hard to imagine any shred of sentiment surviving; it would be hanging on like a tiny gasping plant, clinging by its roots to a crack in the barren rock face of withering teenage contempt. Maybe she’d thrown away the lot. Maybe she’d incorporated them into some weird art installation at school, lying slyly in wait for Sandy to come across at the next parent—teacher night.
And she would have to smile brightly, her face stiff with mortification, and pretend she knew all about it. She was still getting over innocently strolling into the IT lab last term and having the teacher enthusiastically show her the website Sophie ran from her school computer . . . no, not website, one of those blog things: BigPage, or MyFace, or whatever it was called.
A wildly popular site, apparently. A cluster of teachers had stood around her, enthusing.
“She’s brilliant, really,” the headmaster had said excitedly, clicking away with the mouse. “Such a thinker, and such a subversive sense of humour, wouldn’t you say?”, and he’d brought up Sophie’s blog. And smiling, still wondering what, exactly, he meant by subversive, Sandy saw that it was called My Crap Life.
“This has had thousands of hits,” the headmaster was saying. “Even the staff read it each week. And the goth twist is what makes the whole thing so exceptional.”
“Emo goth,” corrected the IT teacher, mystifyingly, leaning proprietarily over the back of the ergonomic chair.
Sandy nodded, grimly trying to memorise the web address. “She’s certainly full of surprises,” she said faintly. There was Sophie’s face on the screen, indisputably hers, glowering out from under a curtain of black fringe, so it must have been true. Fourteen years old, and this other life going on, a secret parallel universe served up here now in a fait accompli, something for Sandy to accidentally stumble across when it was all too late.
Like that tattoo. Sandy remembered the shock of first glimpsing it, the sensation of the rug being smartly whipped out from under her. Not even a nice tattoo either, the sort that she herself had contemplated—those cute butterflies in the small of the back, say, or a Celtic band honouring your cultural heritage or some small, significant endangered flower on the ankle.
No, Sophie’s tattoo was pushing heavy metal, like an AC/DC album cover.
They’d been sitting at a barbecue, and Sandy’s eyes had wandered over to her daughter’s shoulders just as Sophie had leaned forward to pick up her drink. It was a hot day and she’d uncharacteristically taken off her black hoodie, leaving her bare pale neck and shoulders exposed. Sandy’s heart jumped into her throat and hammered there a few times. Oh Jesus, it couldn’t be permanent, could it? It was illegal to tattoo a minor, she was sure of it. Wasn’t it?
“Oh my God, what’s that? Sophie?”
“What’s what?” Sophie turned around, her jet-black hair scraping against her singlet. What did she put in it, glue?
“You know perfectly well. That thing on your back.”
Her daughter took a swallow of Diet Coke before answering, and Sandy watched her eyes flutter closed, as she gulped, through the thick sweep of black eyeliner.
“It’s only a temporary tat,” she’d said wearily.
“Thank God for that. I thought for a minute . . . Sweetheart, what induced you to stick that on there? And what on earth is it? A bat?”
Sophie pulled the singlet down with her black-painted fingernails. “I’m trying out what I’m going to get when I turn eighteen, OK? So calm down. It’s just a bird.”
Spread wingtip to wingtip between her shoulder blades. That pale delicate flesh that she remembered pressing her face to countless times when Sophie was a baby, inhaling that scent of innocence and ayurvedic soap, that skin she’d kept so carefully from sunburn and injury. Now her daughter was planning to scar it indelibly with a . . . black carrion bird.
“You’ve got to be kidding. A crow? Right across your back like that, as if you’re some kind of . . . bikie’s moll?”
That slow-motion, long-suffering blink again. Where did she get that sneering contempt?
“Take a chill pill, will you? I told you I wouldn’t do it permanently till I was eighteen.”
“As if those studs through your eyebrow aren’t enough.”
A snort of laughter. “Jesus, Mum, you sound like Grandma.”
That shut her up. Made her stand, suddenly, and go over to refill her wineglass at the trestle table, then wander shakily to another seat under a tree where friends were having a long and circuitous conversation about the local council. She did sound like her mother, awful to admit. More and more, when she forgot herself, that voice came rising out of her own throat, Janet even down to the querulous inflections. Please God, not that noble self-martyrdom next. Anything but that.
My Crap Life. Honestly, when had Sophie ever wanted for a single thing in her whole life? You did your best, you were everything to your kids your own parents weren’t, you put them first in everything, and they still thought their lives were crap. Their lives were paradise, she thought bitterly, picking at the red wax.
Her mother’s voice burbled faintly but persistently out of the ether telling her to warm up the iron and find some absorbent paper and do the job properly, and Sandy tuned her out before she could go on to add that there was still a load of wet clothes in that machine that would soon be starting to mildew and a vinegar rinse would get that smell out but why let it happen in the first place?
When are you going to shut up, Sandy whispered savagely to the hovering apparition of her mother standing in the doorway delivering this litany, and just leave me alone? The apparition turned stiffly on its orthopedic heel with the outraged offence that would take months to repair, if this was real life.
Here she was, an intelligent woman with a daughter almost fifteen and she still felt—with that small, landslide jolt of shock when she glimpsed herself in the mirror sometimes—that she hadn’t yet quite gotten her own life started. As if she was still waiting here in Ayresville, her foot patiently hovering on the accelerator, for her chance to get going. She’d do it soon, though. She’d enrol in something, once Soph had finished school, and didn’t need her there every day. Something that would bring all her short courses together, all her skills areas. Alternative medicine, maybe. Or comparative philosophies.
For goodness sake, snapped the spectre of her mother impatiently, as it clicked out of the house in its sensible shoes, stop your moping around and get up and do something; it’s disgraceful.
Sandy turned Alison’s mug again, took another unsatisfying sip. No, it would be get up off your fat behind and do something. Never arse, or even backside. And Janet, her mother, never mentioned Sandy’s weight unless it was in mean little parting asides like this one, designed to both deny her the right of reply and to leave her with the unpleasant lingering impression that the reason nobody mentioned it otherwise was that they were all too polite to bring it up.
Not that overweight, she thought defensively. Five or six kilos at the most. All she had to do was cut out the wine and it would melt off her.
What had possessed her, all those years ago, to drop out of her Arts degree?
Rich, probably. He could talk her into anything, back then. She’d find out how much of her old degree she could get credits for, anyway, and start to focus on herself for a change. Become a practitioner of some kind, or a consultant. Then, finally, all the pieces, all the little things here and there she’d done—which her mother insisted on calling dabbling, as if she was a bloody duck or something—all of it would make sense as elements of the wisdom she’d gathered on the journey. Diverse fragments of a whole. Healing insights.
She brushed the pieces of wax into her hand and tipped them into the bin, then drifted back to the couch and unfolded the local paper. Still three-quarters of an hour to go before Sophie came home.
An auspicious day Wednesday for Aquarians, her stars said. Watch for a sign that will signal your way forward through a doorway you weren’t expecting. Lucky number eight, lucky colour orange.
She considered what had come in the mailbox that morning. Rich’s postcard and a brochure, from her belly-dancing mailing list, inviting her to a week-long residential workshop to reclaim her Inner Goddess.
Isn’t it time you allowed nature and tranquillity to nurture you at Mandala Holistic Wellness Centre? the brochure had asked, and she had thought, with a small grim smile, you bet your arse it is. She scrutinised the photos with longing—women doing yoga on a hillside in the sunset, women laughing around a table at a candlelit dinner, looking scrubbed and pampered and serene. Yes, please. Slap bang in the middle of the school holidays, needless to say, the hardest time to try to get away. Was a mailbox like a doorway? It would be the right omen, an invitation like that; a sign for the path ahead. Belly dancing was tonight; she might just ask around to see if anyone else was thinking of going.
Maybe she could convince Sophie to spend a few days at her grandmother’s. Sophie could use the time to reconnect with Janet, build some bridges after last year’s disastrous Christmas lunch at that golf club, where she’d hardly spoken all day. God knows Sophie and Janet were both difficult, but it would be nourishing for them both, she was sure of it, to take the time to explore a little intergenerational common ground.
Just before seven o’clock, she heard her daughter tugging open the screen door at the back of the house and the sound of her school bag dropping to the floor. Sophie came into the room like she always did, as if everything exhausted her, pulling off her jacket as she entered.
“Hi!” Sandy said. Her daughter’s eyes gave her a brief, heavy-lidded acknowledgement, a muttered hello. She went straight to the fridge for a can of that horrible zero-calorie cola.
Mere months ago, it seemed to Sandy, her little girl used to come running in with her face alight with news, holding a painting she’d done or some story she’d written to show her. Only five years ago! Well, seven, max. Didn’t kids realise that was barely a blip on the radar? You blinked your eyes and suddenly you went from being the centre of the universe to someone over there on the sofa.
“There’s some of that chickpea casserole in the fridge,” she said.
“Thanks. I’ll have it later.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Sophie shook her head, screwing up her nose. “I had something at Tegan’s.”
Sandy watched the fine column of her throat, the can raised to her lips as she drank. So beautiful, her daughter, with those huge dark eyes—if only she didn’t rim them in racoon black eyeliner like that. If only she wore some jeans with a waistband, instead of those black stovepipes that left her whole midriff exposed.
“You shouldn’t just have that, though. That stuff’s not good for you.”
Sophie swallowed, then gestured languidly to Sandy’s wineglass on the table. “Look who’s talking.”
“Two glasses of wine. Two.”
“And you smoke dope.”
She bridled. “Once in a blue moon! And never in front of you.” That sounded lame, even to her. “Anyway, that’s not the same. It isn’t full of caffeine and carcinogenic artificial sweeteners.”
Sandy’s friends had almost talked her out of her bad-mother paranoia over the occasional joint. It was healthy, they said with conviction, for your teenagers to see that it could be no big deal, just something adults did occasionally. It went with the theory that you took the illicit thrill out of something if your kids saw you doing it yourself. Like getting your own navel pierced. Roll up a joint at home, and it would work like reverse psychology. Sort of.
Now Sophie was eyeing her phone for messages, scrolling through with her thumb, not even looking at her. Sandy closed her eyes and gave a little amused chuckle. No response. She laughed again, a bit louder.
“Sophie?” She waited, smiling. “It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? I mean, you’d think it would be the other way round, wouldn’t you? The teenager drinking and smoking and the parent being all disapproving?”
“What have I said that makes you think I’m disapproving?”
“Oh, I can tell you are. That critical look on your face.”
Sophie gave her a long, opaque look. She was a steady observer, her daughter, so steady it was as if she was watching you think. It never failed to unnerve Sandy, that feeling that everything was going in and so little was being revealed in return. No, I don’t. Yes, you do. Watching everything, waiting for her to slip up somehow.
“So?” Sophie said finally. Those eyes like two coals, and Sandy feeling the light-heartedness going out of the moment, flailing and exposed.
“Well, don’t you think it’s funny?” Floundering now. Feeling like an idiot.
“Yeah,” Sophie answered flatly. “Hilarious.”
Putting her can of cola on the bench, then picking it up again to read the list of ingredients on the side. Lifting it to her lips again, gulping it down as though she’d spent the day in a desert.
She’d tell her later about the postcard. She’d let her know it had arrived, but she wouldn’t show it to her, because there was no need for Sophie to know Rich’s mobile number. Sandy wanted him ringing on the landline, thank you very much. At a time she specified, when she could monitor the call.
Because even though Sophie never showed it, she was still impressionable. That’s why you had to position yourself, like your instinct told you, as a buffer between your child and the absent adult they might have mistakenly idealised; you had to be the protector.
She recalled one of the phone calls from Rich, on Sophie’s seventh birthday, one she’d mentally replayed so often it was like the tape was stretched and the sound had become gluey and muted.
“How is she?” he’d said.
“How is she? Great.” Her voice too tight. “A beautiful carefree little girl who has everything she needs.”
“Is she having a party?”
Savouring the sound of him waiting, the thudding click as he inserted more money. She imagined a stack of gold coins on a phone box somewhere.
“Has she still got dark curly hair?”
Exhilarating to hear that hinted-at pain.
“It’s straight now. She’s looking less and less like you.”
“In fact, the less she turns out like you, the happier I’ll be.”
Click. A faint hollow creak on the line, or it could have been an indrawn breath.
“OK. I’m going now.”
“Yep. That’s what you’re good at.”
She would just curl up and die, thought Sophie as she gazed at herself critically in her bedroom mirror, if she ever got that soft flabby skin under her arms that her mother had. She would absolutely die. Tuckshop arms, they called that at school, cool voices filled with contemptuous scorn. And it was like her mother didn’t even realise, or care. She just went ahead and wore those sleeveless dresses like nobody was supposed to notice all that fat vibrating every time she moved her arms. Sophie raised her own wiry arm and flexed it. She loved the way that little muscle jumped up when she squeezed her fist; the definition of her bicep sinewy and taut under the skin. She could almost do ten chin-ups on the bar now. By about seven she had to really start exerting herself, her legs pumping to kick her up, but she was getting there. Each night she put a pillow on the floor and did a hundred sit-ups, listening to her iPod thumping the first three tracks from her Dogland playlist while she alternated elbows touching on each knee, feeling the air forcing itself out of her lungs as she rose in time with the music.
If you were hungry you could do sit-ups and it took away your appetite. It squeezed your stomach somehow. Her PE teacher said you should stop if you felt nauseous, but you just had to have a glass of water and it went away. Sophie was increasing the difficulty of the sit-ups, not by doing more but by elevating her legs against the side of the bed. You felt a whole other set of stomach muscles lock in then, and grab. A slow burning. When her mother was off on one of her rants about back when she saved the world, Sophie would run her hands slowly down her front to calm herself. Past the rock-hard muscles of her stomach and the loose line of her jeans and over the two protruding bumps of her hipbones. They soothed her, those sharp, delineated bones, the concave flesh between them tight as a drum.
“See, what we were doing, even though we didn’t realise it, was paving the way for all the other protests that came after,” Sandy would say, pummelling a cushion and tucking it under her head, gearing up for the long haul. “We took all those risks to save the wilderness, and we organised. God, did we organise. Meeting after meeting, they went on for hours until everybody felt they’d been heard, you know? That’s why we did the training workshops, so that every single protestor understood the power of non-violent resistance.”
“Then when we finally started the Blockade our solidarity was so powerful it all just came together and nothing could stop us. The whole world was watching.”
Sandy would gaze off into the distance and Sophie would nod, her hands smoothing slowly, slowly down her front. Across the gratifying hardness of her abdominal muscles, down to those trusted, comforting pelvic bones. Back to her taut ribs and down again, keeping her face blank.
Other kids had The Three Bears every night of their childhoods; she had the Franklin River Blockade.
“What people couldn’t believe,” Sandy would continue, as if the thought was just occurring to her for the first time, “was that we were prepared to put ourselves on the line for a place. For a river. That’s why we got the world spotlight.”
Palms flat then, fingers spread against her thighs. She could have got a real tattoo, if she’d felt like it. She had a friend at school, Lucy, whose mother didn’t mind at all, who was quite happy giving her permission for a permanent one around Lucy’s ankle, didn’t see it as a problem. If you want them, she’d apparently said, you go right ahead. Just don’t get a tramp stamp, OK? No going off the deep end.
They could have used that consent form for Sophie to get hers too. Pretended she was the daughter. Or used a fake ID. The point was, it wouldn’t have been hard to do, but she hadn’t done it. She’d just seen the way opening up, there, like a tantalising detour, something to keep secret.
Sophie would stand there, knowing she was a substitute for want of a better audience, as Sandy picked up another familiar thread of reminiscence, and she’d start humming in her head. Humming, and watching her mother’s mouth opening and closing pointlessly, oblivious to her. It was like pressing the mute button on the TV.
Her mother, she thought, was like one of those old jukeboxes, with the same small selection of scratched old songs, playing and replaying them as though she’d never get sick of them, everything merging into a kind of sentimental mush of karaoke. That’s why she loved meeting new people, ones who hadn’t heard her stories. She’d sit them down and you could almost see her waiting for her chance to turn the topic round, eagerly pressing the buttons that would let her slip a few old favourites into the conversation.
She never got tired of saying the same thing over and over again to customers at her stall at the Sunday market either. As if she was reading it off cue-cards. In fact, the market was when Sandy was totally focused, laying out her necklaces and smiling her sweet earth-mother smile to the punters. “Go off and explore,” she used to say to Sophie when she was smaller, giving her a few dollars, flapping her hands to shoo her and her friends away. “You girls can have a good look round for an hour or two, can’t you?” Trying to get rid of them.
And they’d wander through the market that always felt the same—her mother’s friends setting out their stripy hats and tea-cosies, unwrapping from newspaper the same old picked-over antique stuff they’d culled from clearing sales and church fetes and placing it onto their trestle tables. Sometimes the man who sold fudge gave the girls a bag of offcuts to suck on as they meandered, the cloying sweetness hitting the cavities in their teeth, puckering their throats with sugar.
Sophie had begun to notice, lately, the people who really made money at the markets. The new people, the ones who moved with a different kind of purpose, setting out the fire irons and hall runners they knew the weekend visitors would snap up, displaying their organic bread and olive oil in regimented rows, tying on clean aprons with their business name embroidered on the front.
Sandy, as Sophie watched her uneasily, lacked this entrepreneurial drive. She smiled too much. She took ages to arrange her jewelry on the crimson velvet cloth and pin it down, and string up the crystals, and set out her little handwritten sign that said: Shoplifting is bad karma.
She was an amateur, Sophie could see, even after all these years. She had this too-bright attentiveness, a gratitude when someone actually bought something—it was like watching a dumb round-eyed goldfish in a piranha pool.
And her mother’s jewelry looked weird and dated now, anyway. Hippie bling, Sophie and her friends called it privately, scornfully. Earrings and matching necklaces that looked more and more like amusing conversation pieces and less and less like anything you’d actually buy.
For years, when Sophie was little, Sandy would take her on weekly op-shop forays to buy up old jewelry—old strings of beads and synthetic pearls, mostly—and then she’d take them home and restring them into quirkier designs. The year Sophie had started school, her mother had even had some of her jewelry featured in a big craft magazine under the heading What’s Hot, and the page had stayed pinned to the noticeboard at home for years, slowly curling and yellowing. Sophie could still recall exactly the text underneath the photo: What’s hot are these funky pieces made from restrung beads by Ayresville resident Sandy Reynolds. Chunky and colourful, they’re bound to turn heads with Sandy’s inspired take on recycling!
Turn heads was right. Turn your own head, when they snagged on your sweater or in your hair, earrings so heavy they dragged your earlobes down.
“They make a statement,” Sandy would say to potential customers. “They dress up a plain outfit and show your individuality.” She wore them herself, of course, the earrings jangling like little chandeliers as she bobbed her head, smiling, smiling.
Sophie hated going now, seeing Sandy there, bright and hopeful. She’d fight the urge to walk over and rip that dumb velvet cloth off the table, full of cringing irritation. Didn’t her mother see the new stallholders setting up, laying out bracelets and earrings from Bali and Africa and India? Didn’t she get it, that nobody wore this recycled shit anymore? No, she’d just stand there behind her trestle table with an invisible neon Loser sign over her head, just about, reaching out to polish a crystal now and then, still telling customers the necklaces were funky.
Or talking to her friends in the living room, all of them rationalising and self-justifying and nodding encouragement at each other for doing nothing with their lives. Sample, her mother: “I really just enjoy being an artisan. And I can’t register the business because then I’d have to declare everything and it would just eat into my supporting parent’s benefit. I just like making art, that’s all.”
Cue a careless theatrical shrug, as if she was so helpless to change anything that she was off the hook. Nods all round. Making art. What crap.
In her room, Sophie tucked her heels into the steel base of her bed and laced her fingers behind her head. Up. The first few were always hard, till you got warmed up. Left elbow to right knee.
The bassline of the Dogland track started through her earpieces. “Katabasis”—the best song on the album Elysian Eclipse, her absolute all-time favourite. She liked Nosferatu too, their first CD, and she’d heard the new one Vermin Kiss was fantastic—she still had to download that one. She wanted the whole collection, so she would have been happy to buy the CD, but Dogland wasn’t the kind of band a music shop in a town like Ayresville just carried automatically. Which went to show how woefully wrong they were about nearly every teenager in town. It was just like the chemist shop not stocking black nail polish.
“Oh,” Sophie sang along softly as she felt her shoulder blades touch the carpet again, “Spiral down into this angelic darkness, this boundless place of my black tomb . . .” Up. Touch. Fourteen. Tonight she’d do sixty, then take a breather and do sixty more. Her mother had gone out to her belly-dancing class, swishing from the house in her embroidered orange dress.
“This one, or this one?” she’d asked Sophie, bursting into the doorway to stand indecisively holding up two hangers, as Sophie sat there trying to finish her science homework. She’d held up the orange dress and another equally bad one in blue brocade with a dropped waist. Both sleeveless, both one hundred percent rayon, made in India. She had a wardrobe full of the things. And the way she scrunched up her hair into those clips then spent ages pulling out wispy tendrils so it all fell artfully down again, hair dry at the ends with that henna red colour so she looked like a sort of bedraggled mad witch. Then when she put her glasses on, a bedraggled mad librarian. Sophie had tried to tell her.
“You should get your hair cut like Sal’s,” she’d suggested one afternoon.
“What, in a bob? Yuk.”
“Sal’s looks good. Short like that.”
“She cuts it like that because she works for council.” Her mother’s tone joking and dismissive, not hearing her. The fake-red strands frizzing down over her shoulders.
Tonight she’d gone out with three chopsticks stuck in her hair, the orange dress, one of those jingly belly-dancing belts with bells. Those heffalump arms. No way was that ever going to happen to Sophie. Ever.
Twenty-two. Twenty-three. She breathed out with each lift, every tenth sit-up touching her forehead to her knees and holding it.
Oh, sang Dogland inside her earphones, my penance must begin, and hunger, such hunger, spins my tainted requiem . . .
The burn spread, through her hips and down her thighs. A good ache. That was fat burning, she told herself, melting away into nothing but more hard muscle. Just focus on that, and a drink of cold water at the end, then spooning a hearty meal-sized portion of her mother’s curry out of the fridge and burying it in the compost heap before she came home. All done.
Guide by Lindsey Tate
1. Set against a beautifully realized Australian backdrop, Cate Kennedy’s debut novel examines contemporary family life. Start your discussion of The World Beneath by considering how familiar you found her depiction. With a change of locale, could she have been presenting modern America?
2. Would it be fair to say that Kennedy skewers modern society, or does she present a more subtle, more hopeful narrative of the modern human condition? In her view, where have we gone wrong, and where might our salvation lie?
3. How representative are Sandy, Rich, and Sophie? Were you able to view them as archetypes or, at least, were you able to recognize them as typical?
4. The theme of delusion—and self-delusion—runs throughout the novel. Find instances in which the main characters allow themselves the luxury of skirting the truth, or when they see only what they want to—or need to—believe. Why do they do this? Does it help or hinder them in the long run?
5. Continuing your discussion, talk about the symbol of the Tasmanian tiger. If Rich needs to see a tiger, why does Sophie need to see a dog?
6. Talk about Sandy and her inability to take control of her own life. Why is she so willing to hand herself over to the “care” of her teenage daughter? Why is it so hard for her to live spontaneously, without forever thinking about the potential reactions of others to her every action? Why has her life become so contrary to everything she believes in?
7. On the verge of her fifteenth birthday, Sophie is presented as a typical teenager, glued to her i-Pod and cell phone, disdainful of her mother, with dyed black hair and heavy eye makeup. But how typical is she really? Who is she beneath her teenage “costumery?”
8. Rich enters the novel seeking a paternal relationship with the daughter he abandoned fourteen years earlier. Why do you think he has waited so long to try to reenter her life? What are his reasons for doing so now? How honest is he in his representation of himself? What image is he hoping to portray? Why?
9. Sophie has waited a long time to have a father in her life and has certain expectations of Rich. Are these expectations realistic or is she setting herself up for failure? On their first encounter she sees him as someone who “would know Sandy as well as she did; he of all people would understand . . . what it was like having to live with her. He was an ally” (p. 90). When do Sophie’s positive feelings for Rich become mixed, and then negative? How does he fail her most?
10. Full of secrets—including an eating disorder—and hiding behind heavy makeup, Sophie does not show her true self to the world—just like most of the other characters. For all her attempts at artifice, however, it could be said that Sophie’s is the most honest voice in the novel. How far would you agree with this statement? Why, or why not?
11. The novel is carefully structured to move between the viewpoints of each of the three main characters. What is the effect of such a technique? Did you find you were able to more fully understand the characters and their feelings, or were their true selves obscured by varying viewpoints? Were you overly conscious of technique when reading or did the different characters’ narratives pull you right into the novel’s action?
12. Both Sandy and Rich constantly look back to the defining moment of their lives: their involvement in the campaign against the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. What does this episode of their lives mean to them? Is it symbolic in the same way to each of them? Why do they seem unable to move beyond it?
13. How far do you agree with Sophie’s take on her parents’ role in the Franklin River Blockade? “Sitting back admiring yourselves for turning up to be part of one big thing twenty-five years ago, doing nothing since. Nothing” (p. 257). How fair is she?
14. Consider Rich’s love of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and the “defining moment” in his work. “The defining moment spoke for itself, it didn’t need any Photoshop trickery later . . . it separated the purists from the pretenders” (p. 48). Does Rich have higher standards for his photography than he does for his own life? Discuss.
15. Mother-daughter relationships form an important part of the narrative with Sandy at the center as both daughter and mother. What influence has Sandy’s mother, Janet, had on her life? Why does she still hold such sway in her adult daughter’s life? How is Sandy’s parenting of Sophie affected by Janet? Do you think Sandy sees herself as a capable parent and is pleased with Sophie’s outcome? Over the course of the novel, these relationships undergo a change. Discuss these changes and talk about why you think they take place. What do you see in the future for Sandy and Janet, for Sandy and Sophie?
16. Rich, too, faces a change in his relationship with his mother—a reconciliation. Why exactly do you think this was brought about?
17. Find examples of humor in the novel, and discuss their importance.
18. Discuss the parallels between Sandy’s spiritual retreat at the Mandala Holistic Wellness Centre and Rich’s wilderness trek into Tasmania. What are they both hoping to achieve from their experiences? When Rich and Sophie are lost in the wilderness he thinks, “He would be alright if he could just rise above it, float up there . . . and get some perspective” (p. 286)—then he could find the way out. How is this a metaphor for his life in general, indeed the lives of many of the novel’s characters?
19. What do hikers Russell and Libby represent? Why does Rich dislike them so much, yet Sophie is drawn to them?
20. Rich has the opportunity to build a new relationship with Sophie during their Tasmanian adventure but fails to seize it. Why do you think this is? Why is it so hard for him to respond to Sophie’s question, “Did you love me when I was born?” (p. 212). In looking at other relationships and friendships in the novel, is anyone experiencing anything real or genuine? What are some of the barriers to true relationships that people erect, often without meaning to do so?
21. At one point Rich sneers at tourists “pointing their hand-held digital recorders at everything, every second, and racing to upload it onto their Facebook pages” (p. 49). Discuss his disapproval of things digital, then broaden your conversation to consider how technology in general is portrayed in the novel. Think about Sophie longing to text on her cell phone with her iPod glued into her ears and the way people connect—or disconnect—through such devices.
22. One could say that the Tasmanian landscape, vividly wrought with beautifully detailed prose, is a character in the novel. What effect does the vast, wild place have on Rich and Sophie? What about the other tourists walking the trail? Consider the quote from the beginning of the book: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” (John Muir).
23. Once Rich and Sophie are officially lost in the wilderness they begin to undergo changes. Are they ever truly able to cast off their masks and disguises and present themselves to each other truthfully?
24. How is Sandy finally able to find herself again? What is it about the sudden onset of her friends, “Shining-eyed and avidly motivated” (p. 287), that allows her to break free of the life she’s been leading?
25. Despite their many weaknesses and shortcomings, Kennedy presents her characters with warm sympathy. She seems to genuinely like them and wants things to work out for them in the end. How did you feel about them? Were you able to empathize?
26. “It was like discovering a world beneath the other world, holding you carelessly in its inconceivable fist. A world which showed you the underneath of everything with such supreme indifference that it squeezed the breath out of you” (p. 319). Discuss the importance of this statement, its relevance to Rich’s situation, and to the novel as a whole.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk; This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes; The Good Parents by Joan London; Light on Snow by Anita Shreve; Family History by Dani Shapiro; The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas; The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi; Goldengrove by Francine Prose