The Town by Shaun Prescott

Reviewed by Harriet

This is how things are going to be from now on. This is how they’re going to stay. History can end, you know. It doesn’t have to keep going.

In this strange, bewitching novel, a young writer comes to live in a New South Wales town. He has a project – he’s going to write a book about ‘the disappearing towns in the Central West area of New South Wales’.  He’s full of optimism when he first arrives – he drinks a coffee in Michel’s Patisserie and imagines the interesting people he will soon be sitting there with, visits the library and thinks of all the fascinating books he will soon be reading and sharing with his friends. But that’s not the way his life turns out. He’s soon sharing a flat with a guy called Rob, who takes no interest in him whatsoever and spends his time thinking about and talking about sport. He gets a job stacking shelves in Woolworths, and hits on the idea of recording passages from the book and listening to them while he works. But he soon gets disenchanted. His writing does not measure up to the elevated ideas he has of the finished product:

I wanted there to be a section, or a chapter, or even a passage, which would truly horrify people. I wanted there to be something in the writing that filled a reader with dread.

Visits to the library prove frustrating as there are no books about the town on the shelves. No one had ever written a book about the town, though the librarian himself had tried and failed. The writer starts to realise that his ambitions for the book are doomed to disappointment. Any book he succeeded in writing would be so dull that nobody reading it would ever get beyond the first page.

The writer is lonely and demoralised. He spends his afternoons drinking in a pub which is more or less devoid of customers, and talking to the owner Jenny, who tells him the town is slowly dying. She once had plenty of customers but a time came when they all seemed to be dying off and nobody ever came to replace them.

On his days off the writer explores the town. The only life he finds there is on the great highway that runs through the centre, where there are petrol stations and fast food restaurants. The highway goes to the City, many miles distant, but nobody from the town ever visits the City or indeed ever leaves the town. There’s a railway station but trains don’t stop there, though a freight train hurtles through every day at the same time, heading for the City. Rumour has it that somebody once flung themselves into the train as it passed by, and disappeared, never to be seen again. The writer starts taking rides on the only bus in town, which spends all day visiting the various outlying districts, but Tom, the driver, tells him he never has a single passenger, and the suburban streets they pass through are empty of life. Through Tom, an ex-musician, he starts to take an interest in the local radio station, and gets to know a girl called Ciara, who runs a late-night music programme to which nobody listens. Ciara is the only person he meets who retains a glimmer of hope.Every day she receives packages of audiotapes from a strange, experimental band, and has hit on the idea of distributing them around the town in the hope that someone will listen to them. But all to no avail. The writer spends more and more time with her, though it is a odd kind of friendship and not a love affair. Then a strange, shimmering hole appears in the road in the centre of town, the first of many, and first people and later whole buildings start to disappear into it.

The whole novel, then, works on a literal and an allegorical level. Whatever first world country you live in you will recognise the dying city centres, the decline of bus services and railways, the empty pubs – yes, towns are actually disappearing in many places besides Western Australia. But there’s a layer of strangeness from the start – people seem to be actually unable to leave, even if they have a faint desire to do so – and yet there are many parts of the town where nobody appears to live. Where did they all go? And the strangeness intensifies with the appearance of the holes, which take the idea of the town’s disappearance from a metaphorical to a concrete level.

The novel seems to be about the impossibility of escape and yet Ciara and the writer do manage to leave the town and head for the City. But their high hopes for a better life are not fulfilled, and the writer is left wondering if there is anywhere in the world where he can find a place he feels he belongs.

It’s hard to convey how fascinating and readable a book can be when it deals almost entirely with disappointment, boredom and emptiness. But there is quiet wit and charm here even as the novel conveys the opposite, and it’s certainly far from boring. It’s an extremely thought-provoking novel, and an impressive achievement for Shaun Prescott, whose debut it is.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Shaun Prescott, The Town (Faber & Faber, 2018). 978-0571345618, 256pp., hardback.

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