The World Beneath
Fiction by Cate Kennedy
Published: February 9, 2011
The World Beneath
By Cate Kennedy
Black Cat, paperback
If there’s a dividing line between unconditional love for your parents and innocent pity and/or embarrassment, it might be age 9. So, based on that unscientific logic, a child’s feelings about a parent head toward moments of inevitable disgust after fourth grade. Sorry if this hurts, but it’s true that even the coolest parent is not all that cool in the eyes of his or her child. Cate Kennedy, the Australian author of the short-story collection Dark Roots and three poetry books, delves deep into the complicated triangle of mother, daughter, and estranged father in her first novel, The World Beneath.
Single, aging hippie Sandy lives in artsy Ayresville, Australia, making and selling jewelry at the weekend market. No one would call her a business woman, though, least of all her 15-year-old daughter Sophie, who describes her mother’s sales style as “too-bright attentiveness, a gratitude when someone actually bought something—it was like watching a dumb round-eyed goldfish in a piranha pool.” Smart as Sophie is—she has a blog called “My Crap Life” that even teachers at her school read—her internal angst born of regular teenage crap compounded by an absentee father manifests itself in budding anorexia, and her mother has yet to notice food thrown away, a fake 48-hour famine for charity, or an underweight daughter.
Sandy has her own problems, including a serious hurt leftover from Rich, her lover and Sophie’s father, who left when the girl was just a baby—memories of which Sandy replays in her head: “‘and take that guitar you never play,’ she’d called to him, emboldened and powerful . . . Why couldn’t she feel a surge of that righteous energy now?” Angry as she still is, Sandy can’t deny the father and daughter’s plans to meet up (for the first time, really) and embark on a six-day hike through the Tasmanian outback—his idea of a birthday gift.
Rich, an old-school photojournalist making a living editing infomercials, lives in the past too, replaying the Franklin Blockade—which protested the building of a dam on a river and where he met Sandy 25 years before—not only as a source of self-importance but, somewhat ignorantly, as a means to impress the ladies. When he offers to show his photos from that time to a younger date, she looks confused and says, “Rick, I would have been about two” (yes, she got his name wrong). His daughter responds to his allusions of this “peak time” where “you had to be there” with, “That’s what Mum says.” Soon as the group backpacking/camping/bonding adventure begins, pain sets in—him with blisters from brand new hiking boots and her from a heavy pack on bony flesh.
Irritation also sets in when he tries to talk to her but all he really does is talk at her, telling her about one time he was in Bombay—“Mumbai,” she corrects—and went to see the Tower of Silence where vultures pick the bodies of the dead clean. “How disgusting that you went there,” she says. “Like it was some kind of tourist attraction.” He wonders, “How did they do it, these kids, manage to sneer and snicker at the same time?”
The annoyance ebbs and flows both ways until near the end of the trip when they enjoy a nice moment off the trail before they get lost and everything gets intense: Think blinding fog and no map. The World Beneath offers such emotional truth behind the characters that when the story gets super physical and rather thrilling, we are right there on the mountain with them.
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