- No One, by John Hughes. UWA Publishing. $24.99.
In Redfern, in the early hours of a Monday morning, a man in a car hits someone.
Rather, he hears a thud and thinks he may have hit someone. He sees no one near the site of this maybe accident. But as the hours tick by, he becomes convinced that he has indeed injured a pedestrian.
The narrator is Iraqi, originally a refugee and orphaned in Australia. Like one of the wretched of the earth, he wanders into late 20th century Redfern as if stumbling on to the scene of a crime.
What follows is his journey to find the person he struck and make amends. Along the way, he recruits the Poetess, so called for the flat she inhabits in Poet's Corner, a housing commission tower in Redfern.
The Poetess is Aboriginal, slight as a grasshopper and with a network of scars on her face from being glassed by a boyfriend. Together, the unlikely duo roam the streets of Redfern and Newtown, trying to find the narrator's victim.
Theirs is an odyssey across nighttime Sydney and through the terrain of loss, violence, dislocation and memory. The art-deco charm of Sydney's underground Museum Station is blasted away under the narrator's gaze, becoming instead an entrance to hell, a place where he tries to reckon with the accumulation of misery visited on the original owners of that place.
No One was shortlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin award, and rightly so. It's a masterful work, subtle, many-layered and almost impossible to categorise.
The narrator's reflections about his parents, his early memories in Istanbul and his many foster homes in Australia are both intense and strangely opaque. He looks back over his life as if rifling through a box of old photographs, never declaring himself for or against any memory, even those that are harrowing.
He traipses through his own past like a ghost, so much so that the Poetess, all lean flesh and furious action, accuses him of wanting to be haunted.
Hughes sifts the question of how and where and with whom non-Indigenous Australians might try to make amends. But the victim of the narrator's phantom accident proves elusive.
It is not the victim accusing or demanding compensation, but the perpetrator desperately wanting to know the extent of the injury he caused.
Shot through with a sense of underlying disquiet, the novel is reminiscent of the works of the late WG Sebald.
In No One, we feel that something enormous has happened and this occurrence is all the more haunting because it is unspeakable.
- Christine Kearney is a Canberra-based writer.