Author Alan Gould.

Author Alan Gould. Photo: Jay Cronan

THE SEAGLASS SPIRAL. By Alan Gould.

Finlay Lloyd. 304pp. $28.

Reviewer: PETER PIERCE

<i>The Seaglass Spiral,</i> by Alan Gould.

The Seaglass Spiral, by Alan Gould.

Alan Gould's latest and perhaps strangest novel, The Seaglass Spiral, begins - as did its brilliant, too little acclaimed predecessor, The Lake Woman - with a possible drowning. Ralf Sebright has swum out into the Pacific to scatter his father's ashes and gets into difficulties (as the euphemism has it): ''saltwater has a blood taste. It hackled through his air passages.'' On shore, and unaware of his predicament, is Ralf's wife, formerly Susan Ravenglass, the mother of their two sons. The ''seaglass spiral'' of the title is a brooch, whose ''gold filigree twines a micro chip in which is stored the lineage of our two families'', just as the adjective twines their surnames. That ''lineage'' is the subject of Gould's novel.

At once he takes us back in time, ''10 centuries before this seaside exchange'', when a former Viking settled in Northumbria. Over many generations, his surname transmuted to Ravenglass. With that side of the story begun, Gould introduces the Sebrights, first of them the dissenting Christian Jesse, who finds how often he ''bumped against the unyielding edge of the world''. He is one of those (rare enough) who ''took care to please but not to ingratiate''. His son, Edmund Gower Sebright, will be ''a future brigadier, sonneteer, carpenter, organist, jam-maker and father to Ralf''. After Oxford, Edmund - or Mundo as he is known - will share the fate of millions: active service in World War II. So will Robert Ravenglass, who enlists in the navy from distant New Zealand, where that family has found itself.

The Seaglass Spiral moves backwards and forwards in time, as well as sideways between the Sebrights and Ravenglasses. This way of telling their stories can sometimes be disconcerting, and surprising, but it is always under control. The novel is rich in family lore, nursery rhymes, reminiscent anecdotes. Because much of the burden of the book is autobiographical, these are drawn from Gould's and his wife's memories of what they have known, have heard and have sought to discover. The front and end papers reproduce family photographs, or sometimes only parts of them, that hint at more than they reveal. The task of revelation, steadily and eloquently undertaken, will be left to Gould's prose.

He declares that ''even the most inadvertent inheritances are hived with story''. The Seaglass Spiral tells many kinds of story. Usually they constitute whole books, rather than parts of a single one. There is an episode of war, an exploit under cover in France; a protracted account of Ralf's miseries at an English private school; stories of scapegrace relations, such as Romany Jack Ravenglass, and of others who live on into deep old age, puzzled but not frightened by modern times. There is an account (a version of which we have had before in the three novellas that Gould entitled Enduring Disguises, 1988) of the passion and puerility of the campus protest movement in the 1960s. Ralf's father, a brigadier in the Army Education Corps, is sceptical of his son's politics, but judges that he has ''an ethical mind at least, inconvenient, disingenuous but engaged with the stuff of character''.

The story with which the novel culminates is the love affair and marriage of Ralf and Susan. The latter, who could be ''so bruisingly at odds with the world'', and who for Ralf remains ''his merry, vigorous, demure girl'', steals the book. Yet despite the happiness of the pair, the tone of the novel is elegiac. So many lives are farewelled, as hopes are. With The Seaglass Spiral, Alan Gould confirms himself once more as among Australia's finest and most original living authors (as a poet, as well as in prose). The neglect with which he has been treated may be benign, but it is unforgivable.