Rifling Paradise is the second novel of the critically acclaimed novelist and poet Jem Poster. The praise is indeed well-deserved – Rifling Paradise is a very well-crafted piece of literary fiction; it is intense, vivid and thoughtful in its exploration of the hidden passions, forbidden desires and the unspoken social codes of Victorian society, all of which is subtly mirrored in and filtered through the more fundamental relationship between man and the natural world.
Rifling Paradise opens with a confrontation that tethers on the brink of violence. Late one evening, Charles Redbourne, a quite and withdrawn bachelor, is drawn into an angry confrontation with a group of local men at his own estate. A young man is dead, suicide, and the local community lays the blame of this tragic death on Charles’ shoulders. As the narrative progresses, it slowly becomes apparent that his solitary habits might be less than savoury, at least according to the rigid social norms of Victorian England. Charles drinks too much and his passion for photography is focused on a very particular subject: young men, many of whom work as common labourers on his estate. One of these young men, Daniel, has hanged himself – and the gossip in the local village quickly interprets Charles’ marked interest in the young man in terms of sexual deviance.
Shocked by this threatening encounter Charles decides to remove himself from the area and therefore forms a plan for a scientific expedition to Australia to revive his somnolent ambitions of a career as a naturalist. Upon his arrival in Sydney, he lodges with Edward Vane, one of his uncle’s amiable business associates. Here Charles meets Vane’s artistic and temperamental daughter Eleanor. Initially, they don’t get along well. She resents his intrusion into her workspace but they gradually begin to bond over a common interest in the natural world, though they approach it in very different ways. Charles approaches nature as a collector and a scientist – with distance and a bent for acquisition. He captures his specimens by violence, dissecting and preserving their plumage, meticulously categorizing them according to a scientific taxonomy. Eleanor, on the other hand, approaches her subject as an artist, looking to capture and portray the life and soul of her motifs:
It was not, I saw at once, the kind of study that might have graced the pages of a botanical handbook. Bounded by the two bright slashes of red pigment, it glowed with a similar brilliance, rich and vibrant, but it notably lacked the precision we conventionally associate with scientific illustration. Yet the longer I gazed at the work, the more clearly I recognized in it something of the vital essence of the flower – the extravagance of the flared petals, bright as flame, but stained and streaked with darkness, the honeyed light far down the throat, the cool translucence of the stem.
Fascinated by her artistic sensibilities and her intense personality, Charles strikes up a tentative friendship with Eleanor, who seems to have a quite strained relationship with her widowed father. As Charles’ stay lengthens and his friendship with Eleanor deepens, it slowly and very subtly becomes clear that there is something very wrong in his host’s household. The conflict between father and daughter has its roots in neither Eleanor’s unconventional behaviour nor in her “artistic” temper but in something altogether more sinister. Their conflict is rooted in an unspeakable secret, a secret that Charles inadvertently stumbles upon and that Eleanor asks him to bear witness to. However, Charles leaves on his expedition to the Blue Mountains before the situation in the Vane household reaches a breaking point.
Rifling Paradise is structured into four sections, and it is in the third act – the expedition to the Blue Mountains – that the narrative reaches its dramatic and psychological climax. Poster has, however, embedded a subtle sense of foreshadowing into a description of landscape that not only imbues the natural world with a vivid presence but also subtly establishes the wild scenery as an interior landscape, as it is filtered through an intimate first-person narrative:
What was it, the sick tremor that afflicted me at that moment? In part, I suppose, it was a product of the heat, beating down remorselessly from the open sky but at the same time fanning upward from the hot rock like the blast from an opened furnace. There was the smell too, a soft odour of ooze and rot; as I stood there, the shrilling of the cicadas seemed to swell around me and resonate through the bones of my skull with an insinuating force that made me think of madness. But above all, I think, I was disturbed by something in the look of the landscape – not pitilessness exactly, since the term implies the possibility of pity, but a blank imperviousness to our presence. In the gleaming mangroves, in the lazy flow of the inlet and the flat shine of its silted banks, I read nothing that seemed intended for my eyes, or for those of any intruder in that heartless, unblemished wilderness.
The third act of the narrative explores a more harsh and combative relationship between nature and man. Here, the wilderness is pitted against mankind as a disruptive and violent presence. This is most clearly expressed in the character of Mr. Bullen, the man hired by Charles to lead his expedition into the wilderness of the Blue Mountains. Bullen is a deeply unsympathetic character. He’s a crass, belligerent and racist man who believes himself perfectly justified in exploiting both nature and the aboriginal population because he as an Englishman believes himself to be superior. He views the natural world as nothing more than an object of exploitation, its assets extracted by brute force. It is in many ways Bullen’s actions that ultimately dooms the expedition. He systematically bullies their local guide, a half-aboriginal boy named Billy, and he arrogantly refuses to listen to boy’s knowledge of his own local area.
Billy, on the other hand, represents yet another way to relate to the natural world in the form of a spiritual connection that pertains to his aboriginal mother’s heritage. He warns his employers against certain places; places where the ancestor-spirits live – spirits that don’t take kindly to disrespectful intruders. His warning falls on deaf ears but when first Bullen and then Charles falls violently ill, Bullen directs all of his aggression and paranoia at the young boy with disastrous consequences.
In the wilderness of the Blue Mountains, nature proves to be a force stronger than man and that it doesn’t yield its treasures to neither Bullen’s brute force nor to Charles’ dispassionate scientific gaze. Here, the landscape takes on a presence that is both vivid and implacable in it’s untamed wilderness – here, nature cannot be domesticated; on the contrary, it strips away all of the social trappings and niceties that characterizes civilized society, leaving behind only the most basic animal impulses as Charles tries to survive the Australian outback with no practical skills whatsoever.
The wilderness also functions as the stage whereupon Charles, racked by a hallucinatory fever, finally is forced to confront things about himself that he’d rather just suppress and ignore. Haunted by his hallucinations, his denials and delusions stripped away one by one, Charles can no longer ignore his deeply hidden desires or his guilt about Daniel’s suicide. Alone in the wilderness he can no longer hide from himself.
Charles Redbourne is a character that I found it quite difficult to sympathize with. He’s a very passive character who is simply carried along by events and who always stands as a mute witness to a number of injustices. Thus he never really has the guts to take a stand against Bullen’s abusive and racist behaviour, even though he finds it distasteful and feels badly for the boy – yet he never really makes an effort to help Billy. Charles has good intentions, but he fails to realize them, such as protecting a young boy against the abusive behaviour of an adult. He is passive, even listless, weak and craven – yet Poster’s use of a first-person narrative does not allow the reader to put this character at a distance. It is an intense and very intimate story of a man who has been sleep-walking through life and only now comes to a brutal and possibly lethal awakening. Charles undergoes a deep and violent catharsis out in the wilderness. His body and soul are quite literally pushed to the outer limits of endurance and there is only the slimmest chance that he will survive his ordeal and grow as a human being.
Rifling Paradise is not only a novel about the relations between mankind and the natural world. It is also very much a book about the unspoken conventions that governed Victorian society – social codes that required unsanctioned passions and desires to hidden and suppressed and unpleasant realities to be ignored at will, at least if you were privileged enough to be in a position to do so. Charles is in many respects simply a victim of his own society, paralyzed by a set of very rigid social mores and values the fenced in and regulated the conduct of the upper classes, especially as regards sexuality. In this context, Charles’ wilderness catharsis can be taken to represent a symbolic inferno that burns away the festering wounds left by inhibition, denial and suppression – and that the experience, harrowing as it is, might ultimately prove to be beneficial, something that Poster has chosen to emphasize in a scene that can be read both literally and symbolically:
We had been travelling for perhaps half an hour when the slope above the track abruptly changed character – the trees stark and black, the ground beneath them strewn with charred branches.
What I had registered initially was a scene of devastation, the ravaged landscape of my fevered nightmares. Now, looking more carefully, I saw that the damage was only part of the picture. From the base of each sapling sprouted a ring of fresh shoots, while the blackened trunks had erupted at irregular intervals with similar outgrowths, vigorous tufts of translucent green foliage flushing to red where the leaves were newest.
Once again the natural world is elegantly transformed into a symbolic, interior landscape, filtered as it is through the intimate first-person narration.
Rifling Paradise is a very well-written novel – subtle, vivid and intense. It is a book about man and nature, and the secrets we keep from others and from ourselves. One of its strengths is the fact that the narrative never directly addresses the secrets and omissions that structure the story and the characters – rather it lets the reader get a glimpse and the elegantly redirects the focus, leaving the reader to form his or her own opinions as to what really happened. Just like the Victorians it portrays, Poster’s novel ultimately leaves the baser things (violence, sex, desire) unsaid, an aspect that combined with the intimate, almost confessional tone takes the narrative to the edge of the pastiche, stylistically speaking. In this respect it reminds a bit of some of A.S. Byatt’s work while the thematic content (science and nature) bears a resemblance to recent historical novels such as The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davis and This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson. Though “technically” a piece of historical fiction (though the historical setting is always silently implied), Rifling Paradise will most likely appeal better to those whose tastes have a more literary bent.