"I WAS THE END of a long chain of biological possibilities," Alethea Hunt claims, near the beginning of this futuristic novel. At the end of the novel, Alethea is transformed into a leopard. A Woman of the Future is Alethea's story, told in the form of her notes, diaries and papers, from the time of her conception to her ultimate transformation at the age of 18.
Many of the characters who appear along the way have the beginnings of animal features. Many others have even more bizarre, nonhuman qualities. Mr. Cowan's coffin grows out of his side. At first he saws the protrusion off; then he lets it grow, until it emerges, complete. The faces of old Australian coins appear on Drago Bulatovic's skin. The Vaux children, Everett and Arabella, have to keep moving or else their toes grow into the ground. Audrey Major cannot be touched by anyone for very long or else she becomes attached and grows into them. Mr. Small has a cannon growing out of his lower chest. Moses Betts can inflict wounds with his voice. There are many more such characters, and there is also the wandering crowd, a group of some 10,000, tramping around Australia, making a lot of noise and apparently never stopping.
The context for all of this is an Australia of the future; the exact time and place remain unspecified. Society is split into two groups, The Frees and The Serving Class, more commonly known as the pros and the proles. There are very few details given concerning the structure of this society, and David Ireland obviously does not intend a direct critique of social and political structures in the manner of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. The concern here is more with creating a nightmarish landscape against which Alethea's story unfolds. Apart from the presence of human and animal mutations, there is one oblique suggestion, about one third of the way into the novel, that what is being described is a post-nuclear-war society (this is given resonance by one's memories of Nevil Shute's novel, On the Beach ).There is not much made of this, however, in any direct sense. The story's momentum depends solely on the progress of Alethea Hunt, from birth through infancy, childhood and puberty, to young womanhood. It is Alethea's world, described in Alethea's terms, and those terms are by no means certain. That is, one is not always sure of the extent to which events described are the result of Alethea's observations or of her imagination or of both. The early sections of the novel (there are some 365 sections) contain many childish rhymes, non sequiturs and silly statements, all well suited to Alethea's retrospective portrait of herself as an infant. But there are problems here.
"I know lust means never having to say I love you," Alethea says, on the first page of the novel, no less. It is not the truism of the statement here that interferes, so much as the connotations. Likewise, there is in Alethea's world, so full of the aggression and cruelty typical of childhood and adolescence, a character named Judge Lorenz. The playfulness in these oblique references to Love Story and to Konrad Lorenz, author of On Agression, ends up being weak, just as the images created by Ireland's mutants end up being banal. A man with his own coffin growing out of his flesh is an image to be expected from imitation surrealist poetry, not from a serious novelist.
The true power of A Woman of the Future is in the more naturalistic elements of David Ireland's portrayal of Alethea Hunt, from her encounters with toilet-training and her very amusing confrontation with the concept of penis-envy (a quality she singularly lacks), through her discovery and exploration of her own sexuality, her competitive and successful school career, to her final evaluation of the world she has inherited and her abandonment of both that world and of her human form. It is here, with the impact of an intelligent young woman's recognition of the disturbing and distressing nature of life on this planet, that the novel is most convincing.
David Ireland refers during the course of A Woman of the Future to many writers, and it is perhaps significant that none of them is Australian. Only the poet, Judith Wright, and the novelist, Patrick White, have made literary reputations in Australia strong enough to have had lasting impact elsewhere. Living outside of Australia, one has no sense of any continuing literary mood or movement there. The rough and romantic naturalism of D'Arcy Niland's writing is perhaps most typical of what one expects of literature from that continent, but whatever tendency that author might have represented seems to have ended with his death in 1967. There does seem to be some kind of renaissance going on, especially in the film world, with such successes as Fred Schepsi's The Chant of Jamie Blacksmith, Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, and Phillip Noyce's Newsfront; and also in literature, with David Malouf's novel, An Imaginary Life, achieving considerable acclaim in this country, and now this, David Ireland's sixth novel, being published here.
Ireland's literary inspiration, however, seems rooted somewhere other than his native land. The play between dream and reality, between perception and imagination, which informs the tone of this novel so strongly, has its closest affinities with the writers of Latin America, and most particularly with the so-called magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is an idiom that perhaps works best for writers of that culture.