William Lane presents a delightfully woven piece with The Salamanders, into a meditation on family and the nature of art. It begins on a holiday by the ocean, where controversial artist Peregrine holds court while a series of children and old friends drop into and out of their seaside idyll. Beneath what appears to be peace, discontent simmers. Without a reveal as to what exactly went down on that holiday, the story picks up with two of the children, Rosie and Arthur, fifteen years later. Their relationship is complex and laced with the seeds of that seaside holiday, with Rosie returning from England to her adopted family’s hut on the Hawkesbury River.
Competently written, Lane’s story is compelling and melancholy. A study of a complicated family dynamic led by a capricious patriarch, It’s an enjoyable piece, but the text is slightly too aware of the atmosphere it’s trying to create. It toes the fine line between overwritten and lyrical only sometimes. The imagery can be lovely and is evocative, such as in the early description of the Hawkesbury where “shoals of fish sucked the last oxygen from the shallows, and crosshatched the channel in rippling, reefing river muscle,” but Lane strays towards self-consciously dreamlike once too often. Later on Arthur and Rosie’s road trip, the dust cloud in the wake of a truck is described evocatively as “a churning red demon”, and a gunshot on kangaroo hunt makes it seem, rather overwrought, that “time itself had been shot, a second, and a millennium, irreparably punctured.”
Lane’s dialogue is detached, lacking the immediacy and realism of actual speech and thus characters feel as if they’re performing, reading a script. This might be a conscious choice due to the thematic meditation on the nature of art and its interactions with life, but it just misses the mark in this attempt.
Despite this, Rosie is a lovely character, crafted carefully in dealing with her origins of adoption and difficult adolescence. She returns changed by her English experiences and yet is still an independent and vibrant individual who feels large in Arthur’s presence. Contrasted rather deliberately with another character of the same name, Lane illustrates her charm juxtaposed with the small town quiet of the second Rosie.
Lane’s book is a short read packed with imagery and the echoes that family leave throughout our lives. Its intense poetic nature and dialogue do not always come off as genuine, but there is truth in the observations of art, place, and especially Australian identity that readers will appreciate.