By Gail JonesFiction Text Publishing
The Death of Noah Glass
The art historian Noah Glass, having just returned from a trip to Sicily, is discovered floating face down in the swimming pool at his Sydney apartment block. His adult children, Martin and Evie, must come to terms with the shock of their father’s death. But a sculpture has gone missing from a museum in Palermo, and Noah is a suspect. The police are investigating.
None of it makes any sense. Martin sets off to Palermo in search of answers about his father’s activities, while Evie moves into Noah’s apartment, waiting to learn where her life might take her. Retracing their father’s steps in their own way, neither of his children can see the path ahead.
Gail Jones’s mesmerising new novel tells a story about parents and children, and explores the overlapping patterns that life makes. The Death of Noah Glass is about love and art, about grief and happiness, about memory and the mystery of time.
‘Novels are machines for thinking as well as feeling,’ Gail Jones, one of Australia’s pre-eminent novelists, has noted in the past. The Death of Noah Glass, her seventh novel, is concerned with the leftover traces of things and what lies beneath their surface.
Noah Glass, an eminent art historian who has recently returned from a trip to Italy, has died and it falls to his two children, Evie and Martin, to make sense of their father’s life – and of their own lives now that he has gone. Bookseller Evie is something of a drifter, a compulsive maker of lists, keeper of esoteric knowledge, and she is transplanted from Melbourne to Sydney for the funeral. Her older brother Martin is a successful artist with a history of drug abuse. Their mourning is interrupted by the allegation their father had somehow been involved in the theft of a statue from a museum in Palermo. It seems outrageous; inconceivable. What follows is a sensitive and wide-ranging examination of Noah’s own life – from his upbringing as the child of a minister attending to the needs of lepers in a Western Australian colony, to his own conversion to a life of art appreciation standing before a painting by Piero della Francesca.
Beautifully written and psychologically acute, The Death of Noah Glass is an exploration of the ways in which we can remain hidden – from even those with whom we share our lives.
Wednesday. This was the day of the funeral. Today he must retrieve the suit he was married in and prepare himself. He must be cautious of his own precarious feelings, he must be manly, and upright, and not lose control, or weep. Martin kicked his legs free of the sheets. He turned from the window and struggled hungover from his bed. His body, always slim, felt abnormally heavy. He rubbed his face with both hands, then his stiff neck, then ruffled his receding and thin grey hair. He felt his skull and wondered with idle alarm about diminishment of memory. Only forty-three, he suspected that his brain was already fretted with holes. Almost every day he found evidence of incipient dementia or a biochemical dysfunction that had no name. Objects receded from definition. People became generalised. Book titles were often difficult to recall. It seemed a dopey belittlement. He was growing smaller in the world, and now, with his father gone, there was a dread, or humiliation, entering the texture of things, like the feeling of walking into a dark room, fumbling for a switch and finding the electricity gone.
In the bathroom, shaving, he barely recognised himself. He was tempted to say his own name aloud. Outside, in the world, he was oddly more credible, an artist who appeared in the newspapers, feted by collectors with a shrewd eye on the markets, linked to the burnished figures of the mysteriously rich. He tilted the mask of his face towards the mirror at a cubist angle. This, apparently, was what it meant to be parentless. One changed appearance, something was peeled away. Shaving cream spattered as he flicked his razor. Martin wiped it to a bleary swirl with the back of his forearm, turned on the tap, and watched the foam of his shaving mess circle and disappear. It would be a day sullied, he knew it, a day full of objects and substances turning into emotions and symbols.
When he heard the phone he started, as if it sounded his nervousness. He considered refusing the command, but realisedit was Evie, checking up onhim.
‘So how’s it going?’ he asked.
‘Did I wake you? Have you remembered?’ ‘No. Yes. Of course I remembered.’
‘You found the suit?’
‘Not yet, but I know it’s here somewhere. Fuck, Evie…’
Martin paused. He must not swear at his sister or sound exasperated. She’d seen him drunk the night before, wallowing in self-pity. She’d seen him stumble on the pavement and whine like a bullied boy, as though the death of their father, Noah, was a personal affront. He felt the grip of a juvenile shame.
‘Yes, that should give us time.’
Martin waited for Evie to resume the conversation. There was a pause that he could not decipher.
‘You okay, Martin?’
She’d seen him red-eyed and pathetic. He’d gazed not at a father-artefact, preserved to outlast him, but at an outstretched stranger, already tomb grey. It was not true what they said, that the dead appear to be sleeping. Their father was stony and gone. His mouth hung slightly open. Martin would never tell Evie about the official identification, how he’d been disgusted by the force of his own revulsion, that there was a foul odour in the air and a mortal sting. Someone professionally impassive, standing by, had known not to speak or touch his shoulder. Someone else, a stiff clerk, asked him to sign a form. And now Evie was phoning, to check if he’d found his suit. He hated the way his younger sister called him to account, made him feel that his misery was undisciplined and trite.
‘No worries. See you soon.’
He hung up. She would guess, no doubt, that he was ashamed of his behaviour, of having made a scene at the restaurant. She was the practical one. She had taken his face in her hands and kissed his moist forehead and said, ‘We’ll get through this, Martin, we will, we will.’ She’d hailed the taxi and held his hand and dragged him snivelling into the house, and propped him against the wall with her own body as she reached to flick on the lights. She’d guided him with difficulty to his unmade bed, lowered him to rucked sheets, arranged him, chided softly – Jesus, Martin – pulled off his stinking shoes and foetid socks. He’d made a weak joke about cowboys dying with their boots on and wanted her gone. Their roles should have been reversed. He should have been the strong one.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist