Book Review: Ironbark

Ironbark by Jay Carmichael (2018). Melbourne: Scribe Publications.


CW: Plot spoilers, death.
TLDR: I enjoyed it a ton, but need to get my geek on.


There’s nothing deep to be learned from reading this novel. It is reading for pleasure. Remember that and you’ll find it a great read.

Despite what the blurb on the back says, the only thing stuck in Markus’s life is himself. The people around him provide opportunities to deal with Grayson’s death, or move on, or walk away from everything. And I feel at some point these characters have asked Markus if he’s staying or going. But Markus lost someone he loves, and he doesn’t want to deal with it because that means letting go of the one thing he cared about. So he’s stuck here between making peace with Grayson’s death and clinging to it by collecting the memories he and Grayson scattered around Noaks.

As a narrative, I feel Carmichael intended this book to be a pleasurable read, rather than proof of his polished writing. I can appreciate that. His protagonist has no real motivation, has no tangible barrier to overcome, and does not find resolution for a problem. Instead, Markus simply tries to cope with the loss by giving himself time to grieve. I got the impression that Markus knew what he was doing and knew only time could sort things out for him. As a narrative that can be hard to keep interesting for a reader, but Carmichael does speak to me with his smooth progression of time and scene description.

It’s a slow burn for sure, but every small action conveys something about a character’s motivations, their world, or their relationships with others. It helps the reader understand what Markus thinks of other characters and how he compares himself to them. In Buff, for example, it’s clear Markus sees a boy he was always expected to be. And in Rene, Markus sees the domestic life that every boy is expected to want. In this respect I don’t think Buff and Rene getting together is a coincidence. Carmichael drops action into the narrative in a way that also provides insight into how Markus compares others to himself. After all, the people of Noaks are only moving as fast as Markus is, yet none but Markus are aware of how trapped they all are.

As always, there are the subtle references to external queer media I love finding in queer narratives — the most obvious one being Markus borrowing E.M. Forster’s Maurice from the library. This following Georges’s return to his gay lifestyle in Sydney leaves Markus filling the role of Clive, who is left behind at the end of his own story to think of a life he was too afraid to live. There were elements to Georges, too, that reminded me of Tiny Cooper (Will Grayson, Will Grayson). I would love love love to have followed this character to Sydney.

I did get a feeling that Carmichael was alluding to the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson (and others, maybe, who were beyond me). Markus’s relationship with Grayson resembles what Tennyson is speculated to have had with his good friend Arthur Hallam — the two boys even sharing the same kinds of texts and ideologies with one another as the historical figures did. Then, as Tennyson was for Hallam, Markus is left to grieve the untimely death of Grayson as though he were a ‘widow’.

Regular references to the colour orange stuck out to me and left me wanting to figure out where Carmichael was going with it. At first I thought it might signify Markus’s memories of Grayson and associated the reference with healing (as per the pride flag). This made sense for me in the instance where Markus buys orange shoes to replace the ones he burnt in grief. I also thought there were potential schoolyard references to an Australian film called Oranges (2004) in the second half, but this was probably a stretch. I’m keen to know for sure what all the orange was about.

One thing I didn’t like was the order Carmichael’s chapters were published in. Where a story should progress from start to finish, Carmichael’s chapters continued to regress further and further to a time well before the narrative takes place. I felt there was information here that would have had a greater impact on Markus’s actions earlier in the book. And in truth I identified several elements that suggested they weren’t published in the order Carmichael originally intended for them (despite him stating otherwise in interviews).

All in all I found this a pleasurable read (both times), and look forward to seeing what Carmichael has in store for us next (Marlo, 1953 = already keen).

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