Plot fails to fulfil dramatic potential

Jessie Neilson reviews Gail Jones' The Death of Noah Glass, publish by Text Publishing.

Gail Jones is an accomplished Australian writer and academic with seven novels to her name. She has been long-listed previously for the Man Booker Prize. The Death of Noah Glass, however, is disappointing despite a lively premise, its plot tending to wallow instead of fulfilling its dramatic potential.

Noah Glass is an art historian from Sydney specialising in quattrocento painting, mostly Florentine, and bringing up his two children to be fully informed in this area. Yet, after a trip to Sicily, his submerged body is found floating in his Sydney pool, and suspicions are immediately raised around his links to Palermo and the brazen theft of an artwork just prior to his death.

To his grown-up children, Evie and Martin, Noah was a model of "bourgeois rectitude'', and it is unfathomable that he could have been involved in anything shady. Yet a suspect he has become, and the siblings are summoned to the police station to hear that their father may have been involved in a Sicily-based art smuggling ring.

The item in question is a late 19th-century sculpture by Vincenzo Ragusa. Upon this preposterous news, Martin and Evie head for Sicily to do some investigating of their own, seeking out their father's past acquaintances. It feels to them as if their father's concluded life is now running backwards through the years, altering as it goes. How reliable witnesses are is also a matter of debate, as there is continual denial and obfuscation.

The reader learns much of Noah's back-story piece by piece, as well as about the siblings and their challenges. Martin uses self-deprecation in order to avoid difficult emotions, and Evie is drifting in life, as well as displaying some obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as her need to make complex alphabetised lists.

The Death of Noah Glass has involved substantial research into a specific period of art history. Yet as a whole, it fails to engage. The most enjoyable aspect is the relationship between Evie and Martin as adults, and how they balance dysfunction with circumspection, as they try to clear their father of his charges. Jones writes with perception on the emotional chaos wrought by grief, and how difficult it can be to operate within relationships when there is so much that will remain unknown.

-Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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