By Deborah O’Brien
Sometimes beauties rich and rare are out of reach, sometimes they are hidden in plain sight. To see them all you need to do is focus…..
Palaeontology in 2016 conjures up images of Walking with Dinosaurs, Jurassic World and David Attenborough but in this 1966 setting the term has not been buffed by Hollywood to be readily recognised. Dr Katharine Wynter – Scaredy Kat to her two younger sisters – has found an academic niche in which to retreat for the past eight years, safe in the realm of extinct creatures. She prefers her solitary existence to the social whirl of her sisters and shrinks away from males, except perhaps her heroes on the silver screen.
Her father once fossicked for fossils, sparking Katharine’s childhood interest in unlocking the secrets of the past and launching her academic career in palaeontology. Katharine is self-effacing at home and at work, filled with doubt about her worth and forced into subjugation at the university. Her ‘ivory tower’ is ruled by the old boys’ club of wealth, privilege and patriarchy. She is a rarity, and well aware of the precarious position of women who secure academic roles. Her outstanding research on the long extinct snaggle-tooth possum, Burramys, has resulted in employment but not brought the sense of security she craves.
Katharine has a lively imagination, with her interior world much more glamorous than her fibro home in Belmore would suggest. She sometimes thinks of herself as Ella Cinders, helpless and dirty at the mercy of her stepmother, waiting for Prince Charming to arrive.
Life in the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and ‘All the Way with LBJ’ is passing her by. Around her, university students are responding to calls for a better world and ignite activism to achieve it. On campus and at home Katharine quells sparks of unrest falling all around her although the times they are indeed ‘a-changing’. She is determined to remain inconspicuous, safe below the radar – until a photograph arrives of a tiny possum found inside the Melbourne University ski lodge at Mount Hotham. Burramys is extant, not extinct, and Katharine is ecstatic!
As Katharine embarks on a scientific quest to investigate the unlikely existence of an ‘extinct’ possum in the rugged High Country of Victoria, she also begins her own journey of self-discovery. The hidden beauty of the Burramys is revealed through a combination of patience and risk taking and parallels the emergence of Katharine from her chrysalis.
Scott King is the professional wildlife photographer who captures images of the rescued Burramys and is in turn captivated by the quest to locate the tiny possum in the wild. From their first meeting Katharine regards him as too good to be true but agrees to join him on a scientific expedition to Mount Hotham. Scott has movie-star good looks and charm (Chris Hemsworth is perfect for this role on the big screen!), affects no airs or graces, and appears to be oblivious to the effect he has on girls. Katharine anticipates that she will be disappointed in the real Scott King but is unprepared for the aftermath of his return to the High Country town of his childhood.
Katharine’s imagination suggests that Scott’s glossy exterior harbours dark secrets within. Does he hide behind the camera lens and travel the world to outpace demons, or is he the genuine knight in shining armour Katharine never thought would enter her life? She fancifully compares their journey to that of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn aboard the African Queen, but the reality is far from a Hollywood formula. Locating the elusive Burramys in the wild begins instead to take on aspects of a grail quest, with the ski lodge standing in for the Chapel Perilous and Scott as Percival. Katharine must put aside her pre-conceived ideas about Scott and focus on combining their complementary skills if the unlikely duo are to achieve their goal.
Inspired by an historical event, O’Brien has woven a fictional tale around the rediscovery of the Burramys which breathes life into what might have been another scientific curiosity. The story unfolds in Sydney, Melbourne, and the High Country of Victoria where each setting provides a sense of place, power or purpose for the characters of the novel.
The possum is the focus of the story, yet appears so rarely, acting as a poignant reminder of the fragility of life. In pursuit of the possum Katharine faces challenges she would rather retreat from, but begins to see herself through a different lens. Scott’s journey towards trust reveals layers of complexity which he has worked hard to conceal. The lyric beauty and devastating power of the High Country permeates the narrative and functions as an additional character bearing an abundance of nature’s gifts. Wild, wonderful, evocative and full of surprises the landscape is presented by O’Brien through a painter’s perceptive eye and photographer’s skilful use of light and focus.
O’Brien’s meticulous attention to detail through painstaking research adds to the authenticity and enjoyment of the experience of stepping back into the 1960s. Social commentary concerning the changes within Australian society in the decades after the Second World War is cleverly woven into the fabric of the narrative. Glimpses of the fashions, transport, politics and ephemera of the time are nostalgic yet a reminder of constant change amid constancy. Analogue television and AM radio shows, music on vinyls, hair curlers and Carnaby Street–style white boots propel the reader into a vibrant world on the edge of the Age of Aquarius.
The continuity of traditions privileging the establishment and patriarchy, the resultant imbalance of power and structural inequities of Australia in the 1960s provide the backdrop to Katharine’s world. Her academic exploitation is a powerful example of women being viewed at the time as lesser citizens, students, employees and researchers where an expectation of underachievement compared to males prevails. Katharine’s character is locked into this world. She lacks agency and exudes a sense of loss, of a future already laid down stratum by stratum. Until the Burramys appears on centre stage!
Skilful use of flashback casts light into the shadowy corners of Katharine’s past, gradually assembling the scattered shards of memory into a quarry which she can look squarely in the eye and face on equal terms. Through this technique Katharine’s past is gradually revealed and the reader challenged to solve the puzzle until all the pieces fall into place. Or do they?
The title of the book tantalises the reader – what is the rarest thing? The Burramys who acts as the catalyst for the story is indeed a rare creature, and may act as a different metaphor for each reader. O’Brien includes an aphorism by Oscar Wilde in the opening pages of the book:
‘To live is the rarest thing in the world.
Most people exist, that is all.’
The Rarest Thing intrigues, entertains and invites the reader to ponder where their own life journey may take them. Dive into this latest book from internationally acclaimed author Deborah O’Brien and join Dr Katharine Wynter and Scott King as they quest for hidden beauties, rich and rare.
Reviewed by Chris McGuigan October 2016
‘The Rarest Thing’ (signed gift edition paperback or ebook) available direct from Lomandra Press: http://www.lomandrapress.com.au/ from 1 November 2016.
Visit Deborah O’Brien’s website www.deborahobrien.com.au