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Satisfying fare for art sleuths

Published: March 3 2012 - 3:00AM

THE LONGING. By Candice Bruce. Vintage Books. 359pp. $32.95. Reviewer: CLAUDIA HYLES

The Longing is not exactly a mystery, but in the intertwined narratives - one with voices from the 19th century and one from the present day - there are pervasive shadowy qualities challenging one to remember, define and investigate. At the end, the reader can feel almost smugly in possession of most of the clues and, unlike the present-day characters, even a certain understanding of the feelings of those characters from the past.

It is not giving anything away to say that Eugene von Guérard's paintings are at the subject core. At least four, one at the very heart of the plot, are in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Read in conjunction with a viewing of the National Gallery of Victoria's touring exhibition Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed, art sleuths will enjoy the detective work.

However, the artist here is not von Guérard, but the fictional Sanford Pericles Hart, collector, naturalist, traveller and diarist. To curator Cornelia Bremer, researching his work 150 years later, he seems to be ''some kind of nineteenth-century illusionist, putting down false trails and misleading clues''. His character also embodies some aspects of Augustus Earle in his travels, but there that likeness also ends; he is mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Cornelia is thrust into the position of key gopher for an exhibition on Hart when her senior curator is involved in a serious accident. Her master's thesis was on Hart and his Gothic Romanticism, so she is well placed to head off to the Western District of Victoria to visit regional galleries and individuals to negotiate loans for the show. She is fascinated by the sketchbooks, the addition of which she feels really makes sense of his whole oeuvre. (It is fascinating to link this, in reality, with the PhD thesis of Dr Ruth Pullin which evolved into the present von Guérard exhibition.)

Gothic is a reasonable description of a house and family on Cornelia's visitation list. Strathcarron has been the home to the MacRorie family for 150 years. Cloaked in completely fictional garments, Strathcarron, its Harts and the MacRories represent the historic homestead Purrumbete, its magnificent von Guérards and its owners, the Manifold family, respectively.

Inhabited now by a trio of dysfunctional relatives, Strathcarron was the home of Ellis MacRorie, who made her way from Scotland as a bride in 1845 and died there in 1857. Lonely and ill-equipped to withstand the pressures of her isolation, she is the principal character of the 19th-century narrative, or is she? Her servant Louisa, whose real name is Leerpeen Weelan, an indigenous woman of extraordinary strength, determination and generosity, is the character to love and admire.

Author Candice Bruce in her acknowledgments recognises that it might be controversial for a non-indigenous writer to speak in the voice of Louisa but her interpretation is sympathetic and never patronising. It is shocking to read of massacres and horrors committed against the Aboriginal people but if this informs the ignorant then it is a very good thing.

Cornelia, through her theories on ''The Aesthetics of Possession'', sees the paintings of the homestead as a key to ''understanding the history of land ownership in Victoria''. Philosophically, she ponders the theories of collection, whether as appropriation, a way of delaying death, competition, possession, bringing order, as a fetish or a mirror of self.

It's a compelling read, and the accuracy reflects the author's 30-year research into this era of Australian art history. There are slight continuity blips, relationships sometimes slip-stream too fast, and some wads of extraneous Victoriana detail might be deleted, but glorious descriptions of landscape and an interesting theme of birds compensate.

The novel's value, apart from its popular appeal, will be in the way readers might learn more about the art and culture that is our heritage: not just von Guérard's paintings, but such diverse things as golden miner's brooches, the superb possum-skin cloaks of south-eastern Australia and the paintings of such early indigenous artists of the colonial era as William Barak. These, along with descriptions of curatorial work, make the book almost a behind-the-scenes tour at the National Gallery.

Claudia Hyles has a long connection with the National Gallery of Australia, where Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed opens on April 27.

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