‘Gezellig. This is Mum’s word. “Nou ja, dit is gezellig,” she says as she shrugs off her coat full of winter rain and puts on a light.’ Gezellig is a word that recurs throughout The Last Thread. We have no literal translation or equivalent in English. The closest we have is ‘cosy’ or ‘coziness’, but this, apparently, is insufficient to convey the nuances of the word and all it connotes. Sala explains it like this: ‘Indoors you hear it, around talk and tea and coffee and pastries with cinnamon and clove and nutmeg, around Mum’s music. You hear it between people, and you cannot touch it because it is a feeling a place has when it is filled with the right kind of things.’
This is Michael Sala’s debut novel: a semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised account of his early life, from growing up in Holland, to moving to Newcastle in the 1980s, and back again, twice – with all the turmoil and disorder these upheavals bring. The young Sala is ‘Michaelis’, and The Last Thread tells the story of Michaelis’s life with his mother and older brother Con, and the constant fear he lives in under the rule of their volatile and merciless stepfather, Dirk. The novel’s structure is a collection of scenes, memories, recollections, and scarring incidents from his childhood and early adolescence – the threads of experience that make a person’s life.
It is a novel steeped in memory and the power of stories. Sala writes of his early memories of his mother: ‘The words that Mum leaves him with fascinate Michaelis, all the dark places they touch, the way that they connect and separate like paths in a maze.’ The work itself touches dark places too, secrets about the family that lurk beneath the surface. If these aspects are true, then this is – aside from anything else – an incredibly brave first novel.
Indeed, the entire novel reminded me of the glassy surface of water beneath which you can sense the murkiness of the depths beneath. Though Sala has a command of often beautiful imagery – ‘Night comes quickly in the winter, like a door closing’, ‘Stars slip across the sky and the fence swallows them one by one’ – his prose is understated, unadorned, affectless. He has a rhythmic style consisting of short sentences that often end in a revelation:
The ceiling fan turns in slow, wobbling circles like a wheel about to come off. The scrawled paintings tacked to the wall flutter towards the open window. A swollen fly skids and bounces against the glass above the opening. The children have forgotten about him.
Everything on Bribie Island broods. The long, straight roads boil with heat…You can see storms coming in from the sea. The water is flat. There are waves on the other side of the island, but you forget that they even exist. Like your father.
This is a book about recollections, where a single word can give rise to a flood of connotations. Sala conveys beautifully the ways that memories connect:
A curled leaf of skin hangs from his finger. The tears do not come straight away. The blood holds back. Both come out at once, and then he can’t stop. He is bleeding and wailing like he was made for it. A fascinated ring of children bustles closer.
The tomatoes are swollen and dark red. Mum runs a knife along each one, before she drops it into boiling water. A thin cut in the flesh, barely visible. The skin of the tomato unfurls when it hits the water, like a flower blooming.
But it is also about how our memories can be different, and the gulf between people those differing recollections can create. ‘”Why did she get so angry?” Michaelis’s question falls into the silence of the car. He decides mum isn’t going to answer, but then she does. “It’s because we have different memories.”’
While much of this is serious – dealing with terribly scarring occurrences, Sala is able to inject real humour into the narrative, with one particularly amusing/horrifying moment involving smearing a revolting substance with a calligraphic flourish on a public library chair. There are also wonderful accounts of Australia from the perspective of an outsider, written as a strange and exotic place, such as his account of their road trip to see The Big Pineapple: ‘There is big everything in Australia…Giant versions of ordinary things, along roads that never seem to end.’
There were times, particularly in the beginning of the book, when I wondered about the choice of third-person narration. I understand that Sala employs this as a distancing technique to underscore the novel’s status as a fictionalised account rather than a traditional autobiography. However, third-person narrators are usually omniscient, or at least outside the narrative. In this novel, however, we are decidedly inside Michaelis’s point of view – locked into his perspective. When big secrets in the family history are revealed, for example, it is because Michaelis is sitting beneath the table where adults are chatting. We never know more than Michaelis knows.
And yet, it is perhaps appropriate, because in the end this isn’t really an autobiography of Sala himself at all – there is a huge gap in his narration between his adolescence and adulthood – but of his relationship to his mother, brother and the stepfather who terrorised and tormented them. As Sala writes late in the novel, ‘Con wants to know what I’m writing about. I tell him that I’m writing about him and me, when we were young.’ Ultimately, what this work is really about is the endless search – by two boys, but above all, by their mother – for that feeling a place has when it is filled with the right kinds of things. Gezellig.
This is a strong and promising debut. I look forward to seeing what Sala does next.
— Michael Sala’s The Last Thread is out now via Affirm Press. RRP $24.95