There's something about vagabonds that intrigues us. People who live on the edge of society, who eschew our modes of beauty and respectability, tend to draw the eye -- even if just in perverse speculation. In fiction, taking advantage of this can feel like a cheat, a conceit, if the seemingly metaphoric eccentricity of an "outsider" character is not supported by a story of emotional logic and integrity. As readers, we want the limits of our credulity tested by the idiosyncratic and perverse, but only if we're rewarded with a new understanding of the reality we inhabit. Put another way, we love being let in on gossip, but hate being taken in by lies.
Goldie Goldbloom's intriguing debut novel The Paperbark Shoe (forthcoming from Picador Trade Paperback, April 2011, and winner of the 2008 AWP Award for the Novel) dances around this dual responsibility with admirable aplomb. The book, set in World War II-era Australia, follows Gin Boyle, who is at once an albino, a classical pianist, an ex-mental patient, and a dubious heroine. Her husband would be a clever enough piece of work just for his name -- Mr. Toad -- but he also happens to be an aficionado of ladies' corsetry and a man of diverse sexual tastes. They make up a precarious family, and their lives are further complicated by the arrival of John and Antonio, two Italian prisoners of war who work for and befriend the Toads on their meager outback settlement.
It's an appealing setup, but without Gin's tart and affecting voice these trimmings would be reduced to smoke and mirrors. Thinking up improbable circumstances is a party game; Goldbloom's achievement is in reminding us -- through her narrator's eye for detail and description, her characters' unique vulnerabilities -- that just because we've never seen something before, doesn't mean it isn't real.
Part of what makes Gin so engaging is the physical way in which she deals with her emotions. She tattoos her marble-white body to ward off invaders, weaves threads of her own hair into a gift for her eventual paramour, Antonio, and works through the frustration of her unfaithful feelings by dismembering desert creatures:
Thinking of Antonio's hand on my belly, I slammed the back of the axe down again and again on the necks of the rabbits. When I was done for the night, I left their bodies cooling in a sack hung from the salmon gum outside the shearing shed, hit the sack one more time with the axe and went in to bed.
And Gin's is not the only mind bursting out onto the page in unexpected forms. Goldbloom's novel is peppered with physical manifestations of the emotionally ineffable: Antonio constructing careful handmade shoes for his distant family's phantom feet; Toad (who, despite his squat physiognomy and prickly personality, emerges as one of the book's most emotionally accessible characters) buying Gin a telescope to compensate for her weak eyesight and painting fantastical representations of his family's dreams on the sides of the outhouse.
Over these personal alliances and struggles is layered a narrative of responsibility and war, of bigotry and isolation. No matter how close they each get (in their own ways) to Gin, Toad, and their children, Antonio and John are prisoners of war -- enemies of the state. The town of Wyalkatchem views all Italian POWs with a mixture of begrudging fraternity and more powerful mistrust, and the fact that Antonio and John are stationed with the Toads -- outsiders already, for their own reasons -- makes the pair easier targets for xenophobia and blame.
One thing that feels uneven in the story is the extent to which these two men are meant to overshadow the stereotypes (both historical and specific to this novel's world) that dog them. The Western Australian townies with whom Gin and her family clash view all Italian soldiers as leering sexual predators, saboteurs at the ready -- a perspective we're prepared for by war propaganda we've encountered. In Goldbloom's hands, Antonio and John are more than this: family men, artists, passionate boys. But the townspeoples' greatest taunt to Gin -- that she is a mere toy for Antonio's idle hours, that he will abandon her for his real wife when the war is over -- turns out in large part to be true. Long after Antonio has left Gin's life, his brother reveals the meaning of his nickname for her, Gingilla. "A plaything,' he said. 'A toy.'"
Of course, people use each other: it is sad, but true. Still, the slow revelation (slow for Gin, anyway -- less so the reader) that Antonio is not Gin Boyle's golden ticket out of her life coincides with a growing slackness in the narrative. They're separate issues, but combined seem to compound one another -- an emotional disappointment weighing on a structural weakness, and vice versa, making both stand out more than they otherwise might. The tight adherence to Gin's present tense consciousness slides into a past tense voice, pushing readers away from the story's dénouement. And the woman who has emblazoned her own body with her desires suddenly becomes vague in her motivations, shaken in her ability to describe what she is doing, let alone what she wants.
The ending of The Paperbark Shoe is not all that one might want from it. But taken as a whole, the book is an enviable achievement, particularly for a first-time novelist. It deploys a rich new world, unbelievable but true.