Nigel Featherstone’s prose in The Beach Volcano is ample evidence of his literary writing skills. His mastery of nuance and clever character development techniques combine to drive the plot inexorably forward, and this novella is a compelling one, from beginning to end. You can (and probably will) read this in one or two sittings.
The subtle nuances illuminate relationships that Canning has with both his family and significant others in his life. They give shape to his character.
Another in a long line of excavations and subsequent revelations of family skeletons in the closet, (I have recently reviewed a couple of these types of books in the blog), the story unfolds, carefully unravelling the past and how it is knitted with (and affects), the present through a family reunion celebration.
The protagonist’s story is told in the first person. This point of view, renders it more credible and simultaneously builds the character of Canning Albury (aka Mick Dark) into someone that readers will both love and at the same time perhaps, often find annoying and even petulant. He is endearing because we tend to empathise with the difficult circumstances of his childhood. He may frustrate readers at the same time, (due to his apparent complete inability to repair the relationships that are so broken – namely with his family, from whom he has been estranged for a quarter of a century!). Not only this, but the nuances surrounding his relationship with significant others, also tend to be making a statement about his commitment issues.
The central tenet of the story is the question of, “How should we deal with what’s lost? And how should we deal with what’s to become, something unknown but so very much desired?”.
The reader finds himself/herself urging Canning to make the necessary leap to reconnect, and yet, also being frustrated by how long this process seems to be taking, as if he needed a little push, in fact. And one does get the urge to do so.
The psychology of the protagonist drives the plot and his life has been, thus far, a rebellion against his upbringing. There is an exposé of the shallowness of the North Shore set in Sydney, and Nigel provides plenty of familiar landmarks that the Aussie reader will recognise.
There is an element of tragedy to the story too. (Although a few lighter moments are certainly infused around the actual family tradition of the beach volcano—which is pictured on the cover and becomes a symbolic motif, involving memories from the past, and well established through Canning’s adolescence). But the burden that several members of the family need to deal with, revealed towards the end, is a significant one.
The tragic circumstances bring about a sense of attempts at reconciliation, but the nuanced writing does leave the reader to interpret much of Canning’s motivations for him/herself. Nothing is simple in life, of course, and this novella is very realistic – there may not be a happily-ever-after type of simplistic ending, and indeed, it’s altogether possible that the story could have a sequel (and for that matter it could manage with a prequel as well, should Nigel come to consider such a thing).
For those not yet familiar with the novella form, it is longer than a short story and yet, shorter than a novel. The word comes from Italian, I believe, meaning “new”, though the form is not that new now. This novella runs to 141 pages and probably takes a couple of hours to read, all up.
This novella would be an excellent choice to read on a long plane ride. It would keep the reader engrossed for the entire literary journey that is The Beach Volcano.