Book review: Cara Carissima, by Geoff Page; Lakeland, by Maureen O’Shaughnessy

CARA CARISSIMA, by Geoff Page. Picaro Press, $20; LAKELAND, by Maureen O’Shaughnessy. Ginninderra Press, $25.

By happy coincidence, two daring and experimental new narratives have been published. One is a verse play, a salon piece in nine scenes, Cara Carissima by Geoff Page, who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Australian poetry. The other is a story told in verse and prose by a relative newcomer, Maureen O’Shaughnessy, with Lakeland.

Page’s subject matter might seem parochial – a series of conversations in a cafe in Civic in Canberra between the participants in, and spectators to, the dissolution of a 27-year-old marriage – yet this is a matter, however familiar, that can be of grievous consequence. By contrast, O’Shaughnessy ranges from 1904-2014, from Germany, Poland and Russia into an Australia where old world tragedies are still potent immigrant memories. Each work is alike though in offering a dramatic polyphony, finely delineated voices speaking in monologue, or in company.

Page’s Cara Carissima is a five-hander. One speaker, the barista, links the scenes and observes the action between Sarah, who is getting rid of her husband Barry (a senior public servant), Sarah’s younger sister, Jane, and Cara, Barry’s 41-year-old executive assistant who has just split from her lover, Helmut. Barry is consoling: “Even Teutons have their limits”. No consolation from Sarah as he feels “the whetted edge” of her voice in regard to their wayward sons in Melbourne: Giles has dropped out of law, while “Jack’s med is on the skids”. Worse are their alternative choices: “a band called NOISE. And Anglicare”. As Barry relates her assault on him: “Encyclopaedic, one might call it -/front-on, sideways, in reverse”. Neither is Sarah spared. For Cara she is “a sort of goddamn Hitler-ess/patrolling her domestic Reich”. With unflagging humour, Page will show us who laughs last.

He is a master of light verse. This has nothing to do with triviality, but rather with admirable legerity in handling serious business. A formalist, in Cara Carissima Page deploys quatrains, rhymed abcb. The rhyme words are key to the comedy and the narrative momentum – “OK/chardonnay” – or when Barry thinks of how Cara’s parents might react to an older man: “My thirteen extra shades of grey/might make them wish they’d never seen me”. There the final word jubilantly completes a rhyme with “grandbambini”.

O’Shaughnessy ventures more widely, shifting from verse to prose and back with a skill that makes a complex exercise look simpler than it is. She also has to manage a more convoluted and longer story than Page. For instance, she traces a female line from Anna in Germany in 1904, to her abandoned daughter Helene, to the latter’s child Sieglinde, who emigrates to Australia and has the daughter called only M and a granddaughter, Celia. In the book’s last scene, M and Sieglinde are in Poland in 2014: “she’d wanted to see her home town again”.

The emotional heft of Lakeland is found mainly in the European scenes, whether of the rise of the Nazi Party, “Insolent Jews have been arrested” (one section featuring the Berlin water tower that was the site of the first concentration camp), the involvement of members of the extended family in war, the fate of those who are captured by Russians at war’s end (this in the harrowing section set in a prison near the Masurian Lakes), the uprooting of millions in the years after the war. O’Shaughnessy covers this ground by vignette; for instance, depicting the flight of Sieglinde and her brother Christof from East Germany in 1951: “over the frozen ground the refugees pressed on in hurried amazement”.

O’Shaughnessy’s book demands close attention and patience as gradually the connections across generations are revealed. There are frightening scenes – the countdown in the midnight hours at the end of 1944 on a merchant ship in the Baltic Sea – and incongruous ones, as when Sieglinde takes her German nephew, Ewald, a travel writer, to Victoria’s Little Desert. He is horrified at “country that flowed through your eyes like a wasteland”. Then there is the pathos of a house now without children – “waft after waft of vacancy”.

That Geoff Page has once again excelled in a medium that he has tested and enriched is no surprise. The advent of O’Shaughnessy is a very welcome one.

Cara Carissima will be performed at The Courtyard Studio, December 17-19. Bookings: 6275 2700.

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