Acker looks into the night sky above the silhouettes of the Rocks. The constellation of the Two Mothers, ringed by their campfires, floats above her like an enormous skeletal kite sailing on a vast and unfelt wind. She sits in the dark for a long time, so long that the wallabies that are as common as mice, and generally as timid, go thumping past her squabbling.
Acker doesn’t sleep anymore. She just falls into dreams unannounced, aware of her body in space, sitting under the stars, while the dreams consume her. The dreaming that Acker used to carry so boundaried has vanished. Now she is like a fissure in space through which the dead fuse briefly with their own discarded memories, a pool into which they sink their unbearable states of loss and sorrow.
She takes the thing that is not herself, that has no owner but without which she is barely a husk, and jams open the space-time binomial. That is to say, she takes the beast that is the ‘I’ and enters the crevice where violence disappears, where the murdered have been thrown.
Acker remembers her last sleeping dream. She is standing outside the door of the room where she used to write, the desk with too many drawers by the window from which she could look down on the street; its junkies, broken cars, the sex workers she chatted with on the way home. Dusk is falling. The door slowly opens. A large hole the size of a cannon ball has been punched through the wall beneath the window, and through the hole a wind is blowing. The room is empty. A few dead leaves scutter about. And even in the dream it seems perfectly obvious that her life has become a desolate room, violently and mysteriously emptied.
Since then, all her patient, dangerous, lonely work has been predicated on her discoveries about memory: Memory is dream not history. Memory is a kind of slipshod grammar of dreams improvised out of whatever is lying around. It is cobbled out of bits of wreckage, spare parts, of insides and outs, the doors and windows and walls of the world, an archipelago of interiors and landscapes, perhaps not quite a map, perhaps closer to the archipelagos we might imagine when we gaze at evening cloud, our minds distracted from the evils of the day.
As she sits under the Two Mothers, Acker dreams of the journey she is going to make; its uncertain progress, the waypoints that continually shift, the topographies that undergo catastrophic transformation. Of course, the dead are not gathered in one place like tourists. The lands of the dead are many, so very many, layered on top of one another like leaves on a forest floor and can be like burned cinders or bowls of ash or endless winding tunnels. And there are those lands that Acker cannot enter, sealed off to her like old trunks. But, regardless of the destination, the journey always begins the same way: a ship of prisoners or slaves, packed in cages that grind against each other. For a long time the voyage is marked with the smell of burning and a moving strip of sky that slowly fills with ash.
Winner of the 2017 Viva La Novella Prize
In a tiny book-lined office backing onto a supermarket in a small town in northern New South Wales, a woman named Acker sits smoking a cigarette and listening to the music of Philip Glass. Others come to her with their stories of violence and pain and through her writing she attempts to salvage what they have lost. A Second Life immerses the reader in a world that is both familiar and forbidding. It unfolds with horror and beauty to reveal a complicated and unforgettable portrait of a woman who moves through this world carrying secret histories, different ways of seeing, and many stories.
With a narrative voice that is at once eerily beautiful and slightly wild, and a premise that is surreal and ambitious, A Second Life stood out to me immediately. It’s an exploration of the self and life and death, all of which comprise the psychological fabric of the main character, who occupies many selves and sometimes none at all.
In the morning Acker sits in the cabin of her red Ford F100 truck on the ridge above the valley, a fracture in the rim of the great caldera that reaches to the sea. The rain has cleared toward the dead distant volcanic stub of Wollumbin, the Cloud-Bringer. The valley is filled with a lake of white mist from which rise the colossal menhirs of the Rocks, the burial grounds for the Clever Men of the Widjabul people, their secret caves still guarded by the little spirit called the Nmbngee, whose gaze sweeps the entire valley.
The Rocks are the southern gateway to the little village, now drowned in the lake of mist, that sits on the rim of the green caldera like a broken cup fallen among a scree of mossy stones and whose northern gateway is the massive hump of the mountain known as Blue Knob. At the top of Blue Knob, hidden in the mist and the deep forests, is a cliff. A Widjabul woman of great power once lived up there alone. The Widjabul Clever Men visited her and to prove they had learned what she had taught them, the men had to jump off the cliff one by one and allow themselves to slowly drift to the ground. Some fell like stones. Of course, we are told, the woman used her power to guide them to the ground so that they wouldn’t be hurt.
Asking what happens when we die is to ask both what death is, and what it is that dies. For Acker, it is cut and dried: people hang around. But just as in a dream when one is confronted with a radioactive desert populated with all-night supermarkets and accepts the new landscape without a thought of the waking life they have left behind, so the dead, Acker has discovered, are pitched into a state they instantly fit themselves to. Death has no geography. It is an empty force gathering up all the particles of identity and memory, blowing through them without pause as their true nature is nakedly revealed: fabricated and transient and falling apart. Death is that moment when everything is uncovered and you fall into it, like a stone off a cliff.
How you die matters. Almost as much as who you were. When Acker re-read Dante she was struck by the familiar sense of claustrophobia and the ineluctable chains of cause and effect. And though the topology of Hell makes no more sense than the idea of just and eternal punishment or afterlives as ordered and regulated as the departments of local government, she acknowledges that the force of memory can propel one into places one would prefer not to go, places over which one has no control but that absorb one as completely and gently as a dream, a state whose boundary it is impossible to pinpoint.
Acker seeks out and follows the trails of violence. Violence has an infinite capacity to make itself invisible so that even when its effects are catastrophic, the field from which it arises effaces itself so completely that the violent act seems to float in space, split off from reality, like a bubble that has created itself.
And the village like every rural village across the country, is the entrance to a history of violence, dense with time and creaking under the weight of what has been done in its name, because nothing is forgotten. Every fragment of debris is evidence of the violence of the past. And as investigation is always the tracking and discovery of the past, a past that no one wants remembered, least of all the person asking about it, investigation is the beginning of a series of exhumations. And giving people what they say they want — what they say they have lost — always involves walking them slowly through a disaster area.
Acker guns the motor of the truck and is soon swallowed up in the fog . . .