- A Room Called Earth, by Madeleine Ryan. Scribe. $29.99.
Madeleine Ryan is an Australian writer, director, and actor, who has been widely published here and overseas. A Room Called Earth is her first novel, and an extraordinary achievement.
This near 300-page monologue from a woman preparing to attend a Melbourne party, then leaving it for a lonely (and eerily frightening) walk before returning to find someone with whom she can comfortably identify, has a flimsy plot, minimal dialogue, and takes 15 chapters for her to even reach the party. A lesser writer would have likely sparked a damp squib, but Ryan's debut novel glows with the spookily authentic heat of existentialism on the spectrum.
Ryan was diagnosed with autism while writing this novel but was of course already aware of its complex nature. Her anonymous narrator inhabits the curiously isolated experience of internalised reality with an astonishingly immediate presence.
The hesitant uncertainty, masking scarily sure-footed honesty regarding routine gaucheries at the house party, deftly delivers witty asides with astutely drawn observations about all manner of things, from feminism to fatalism.
The novel opens with the words: "I wanted to wear a kimono and high heels to the party because I wanted people to see me in a kimono and high heels at the party", which instantly sets the tone of a woman confronted with the individual intensity of her own existence, and the need to have it acknowledged by others.
At the party she hovers on the edge of things, seeing and being seen, but constantly aware of a closely guarded constraint. She leaves the party in search of freedom, walking along a lonely street, shadowed by the single figure of a man on the other side, not far behind, perhaps simply going in the same direction, but maybe something more.
He disappears and she returns to the party, still disengaged but eventually finding herself in conversation with a man of empathy, who allows the possibility of unravelling the long-tangled pattern of her physical and emotional responses.
She takes him home, to her inherited mansion in a wealthy suburb, where she lives alone with a ginger cat called Porkchop, whose "job is to sit on my bed and stare at me, and he's very good at it".
She takes the party guy to a room in the big house where Porkchop isn't allowed because it has been sealed in order to breed rare butterflies. One settles on his shoulder, but he doesn't flinch. Instead, he says: "I wish I could see what you see." When he leaves, he is crying, but she doesn't ask why.
Ryan is working on a screen adaptation of this remarkable novel, which sounds even more ambitious than imagining the original text. I wish her well.