Review of Paul David Adkin’s When Sirens Call. Melbourne, Australia: Threekookaburras, 2014.
When Sirens Call finds its center of gravity in the romantically charged meeting between Belinda Babchek and Robert Aimard on a Greek island, but this is not your dime store romance novel. Paul Adkin tackles something much more ambitious, something that picks up on the modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, using the framework of odyssey and romance to explore the nuances of intersubjective separation and contact.
True to the expectation created by the setting, Adkin’s descriptions are finely crafted, from the Greek island scenery to the stream-of-consciousness flow of associations within the young Aussie traveler and photographic artist, Belinda, and the English ex-pat writer and island hotelier, Robert. Indeed, the travelogesque descriptions often clothe the philosophical points of the novel. Belinda notices early on, for example, before leaving Madrid, that “the megalopolis … seen from without, seems nobler,” while seen from within it is “chaos … vulgar, bitter, sharp, filthy” (37). This, in a way, encapsulates the novel’s whole point about human identity and the world we live in. The island scenery, the “tiny fishing trawler … the setting sun … gleaming yachts” (130) that form the outer shell of our protagonists’ experience, are beautiful and real, but equally real are the messy subjective interiors struggling anxiously, hopelessly, “absurdly” as both our protagonists like to say, to define a self and a place in the world. The same doubleness reads as a critique of the “romance” genre into which the novel might faux fit, a genre that typically achieves an outer shell of dreamy idealism, even in tragedy, but does so only by obfuscating the messy interior of bodily functions and psychological disturbances. Adkin doesn’t spare us the messy interior, but rather lifts the veil on the genre itself. The romantic island “paradise,” as Aimard suggests, is a poor cover for a “wasteland” within (186).
The two principal characters do not meet until the second half of the novel, and this may make for a slow start for some readers. The first half, with little or no plot, develops subjective and intersubjective spaces, building up a sense of human identity and a modernist force field of themes – alienation, dislocation, loss of meaning, the individual adrift. Separately, we bob along the interior currents of Robert and Belinda, following their inner lives as they daily reconstruct an identity built upon fears, hopes, lost loves and missed connections, percepts in the immediate environment, nuggets of philosophy and social criticism, literary and archetypal allusions that float in and out of their minds. Each character marks out an identity by a mental repetition of fence posts – cultural, historical, personal, and archetypal reference points that stabilize the frame. But the real pressure points are the points of intersubjective contact – the string of ghosts, shadows, substitute antecedents for the missing him or her, the compulsive desire for, and destabilizing fear of, human contact. The “traps” and “tricks” of Belinda’s photography, of Robert’s novels, might be seen in this light as the traps and tricks we register in all our past relationships and with which we inexorably color our future relationships in advance.
Despite differences in age and background, Robert and Belinda share much when it comes to the struggles of identity construction and sense of loss and emptiness in their lives. Indeed, as we oscillate between their streams of consciousness before the meeting, one wishes that Adkin had done more to differentiate the two, had given a more unique prosody and rhythm to each of these interior monologues, had more sharply distinguished the laws of physics governing these respective psyches. But these are the flaws of highly ambitious writing, and it is difficult not to appreciate what Adkin has accomplished as we stumble into and explore the interior landscapes he has given us.
Once the two meet, this modernist base, this malaise of intersubjectivity, is coupled to a plot with an arc, a tension, a sense of anticipation that pulls the reader into the story by the buttonhole. The plot does not have the intricacy and complexity of a classic Dickens plot, but comes rather in the mold of a D. H. Lawrence plot, where the objective sequence is simple but the subjective dynamics foster ample suspense and expectancy to drive the reader forward.
We do get our plot resolution in the end, and I for one like the novel best when the plot becomes superimposed upon the subjective arena at its base, but this is finally not a novel about plot. It is a novel about subjective spaces, lonely spaces, and moments of separation and contact. Like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, it is a novel not exhausted by the plot, but rather a novel one can return to over and over, expecting with each reading the discovery of new layers of flora and fauna in those fluid spaces between the archetypal and the everyday, where “fishermen’s beards become philosophers’ beards” (21), where all lines converge toward Greece, the cradle of our collective unconscious.