By Mark HenshawFiction Text Publishing
The Snow Kimono
Mark Henshaw’s debut novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published 26 years ago, and hailed as Australia’s much-needed postmodern masterpiece. Smart, distinctive and lyrical, it was a literary exercise in intrigue. The Snow Kimono has these same hallmarks – and once again, things are not as they seem.
In 1989 Paris, retired police inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter. Two days later, a stranger comes knocking on his door.
Set in Paris and Japan, The Snow Kimono tells the stories of Inspector Jovert, former law professor Tadashi Omura, and his one-time friend the writer Katsuo Ikeda. All three men have lied to themselves and each other … and the lies are about to catch up with them.
In the Australian, Peter Pierce writes that ‘with agile intelligence, with boldness in what he has imagined and tight control over how it is developed, Henshaw has announced triumphantly that he is no longer a ghost on the Australian literary scene, but one of its most substantial talents’.
This intricate psychological thriller is also a brilliant meditation on love and loss, memory and deception, and the ties that bind us to others.
Twenty-five years after his acclaimed Out of the Line of Fire, Mark Henshaw returns to literary fiction with a complex, moving book about guilt, responsibility and the stories we construct for ourselves. A retired police inspector, ruminating on his estranged daughter, meets a enigmatic stranger with a tale to tell. It’s a set up for a crime novel – but here the mystery involves the nature of writing itself, as a series of cascading narratives unfolds across France, Japan and Algeria, with each installment complicating the themes and ideas of the last. The result is an exquisitely constructed and beautifully written text, a book as satisfying emotionally as it is intellectually.
THERE are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same. It may be something direct or indirect, or something someone says to you. But whatever it is, there is no going back. And inevitably, when it happens, it happens suddenly, without warning.
Paris: July 1989
When Auguste Jovert stepped out of his apartment building on rue St Antoine to get his evening paper, it was dusk. The streetlamps were lit. Rain still fell in a thin mist. The roads shone. To anybody else it would have been obvious—accidents hovered like hawks in the air.
As he made his way along the wet pavement, in his coat, his umbrella unfurled above his head, he was thinking about a letter he had received that day. It was from a young woman, someone he had never met before, who had made an extraordinary claim. She claimed she was his daughter.
He had stood that morning in the cool, empty foyer of his apartment building reading and re-reading the letter. He did not at first see the small photograph caught in the corner of the envelope. When he did, he raised it to his face. One look into the young woman’s eyes and he knew that it was true.
For thirty years, Jovert had worked as an Inspector of Police. Before that, he worked for the French Territorial Police in Algiers. Recently he had retired, and ever since then he had had the strangest feeling, the feeling that he was lost. While he worked, he barely had time to think. Things kept at bay. Now, however, fragments from his past had begun to replay themselves in his head. It was as if, now that he was approach- ing the end of his life, the overall pattern of his existence was about to be revealed to him. But the moment of revelation never came. Instead, he began to have doubts, to wake up at night. What’s more, he constantly had the impression that something was about to happen. Then something did happen. The letter arrived.
It seemed to him later, recalling the accident, that at one moment he had been thinking about the letter, and the next he was lying flat on his back in the gutter looking up at the intricate expanse of the underside of a car. He could feel the heat from the engine on his face and hear the tiny tinking sounds of its cooling pipes. Odd drops of water fell about him and onto his forehead. One wheel of the car rested on the pavement above his head.
In the distance, he could hear the urgent rise and fall of a siren. He turned his head tentatively to his right. There, suspended beneath the rim of the car, was a man’s face. He was wearing glasses. His upturned hat lay on the roadway beside him.
The man was kneeling down, staring at him. Jovert saw now that he was bald, that his perfectly burnished head was studded with thousands of tiny, incandescent hemispheres of light. He looked from one tiny dazzling world to the next. He saw the man’s mouth moving. The tip of his tie rested on the wet roadway. A dark circle had begun to form about his knee. Jovert had wanted to tell him. Then a peculiar thing happened. All the lights went out.
Two days later, Jovert left his apartment once again to get his evening paper. This time on crutches. Six weeks, the doctor had said. He had held the X-rays of Jovert’s knee up to the hospital window. Maybe more, he said.
On his way home, Jovert sat down on the bench opposite St Paul’s to rest. He took the envelope he had received earlier that week out of his coat pocket, read the address.
A. Jovert Le Commissariat de Police 36 Quai des Orfèvres 75001 paris, france
He looked at the stamp, brought it up close to his face. Only now did he see that it had been franked some months before. He took the letter out and read it through once again. She did not know whether he was still alive, she said. She had only recently discovered that he was her father. She wanted him to know that she existed. She did not say why. I make no demands on you, she wrote. But then, at the end: Perhaps, if you wanted, you could write to me. And she gave him a name, an address— Mathilde Soukhane, 10 rue Duhamel, Algiers.
He took the photograph out of the envelope. He recalled the day almost thirty years before when he had seen her mother for the first time. It had been in Sétif, in a narrow side street. He had been walking up the chipped stone stairs. She had emerged suddenly, like an apparition, from an unseen door in the wall, her dress so white, so dazzling in the light that it was like some momentary disturbance in the air itself.
Even after all these years, the image of her face, her skin, dark against her blazing dress, still lingered. He remembered she had been carrying a bundle of papers in her arms. When he turned to look after her, she was gone.
The girl in the photograph had the same face, the same eyes. She had the same dark skin.
He sat for a long time thinking.
Then, all at once, as though he had only just made up his mind, he took the photograph, and the letter, and crushed them into a tight ball in his hand. He rose, threw the wad of paper into the bin beside the bench, and walked off.
It’s too late, he said to himself. It’s too late.
That evening, however, things began to change. Afterwards, months later, the letter, the accident, came to seem to him precursors of an even greater shift in his life, one that had been lying in wait for him for years.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist