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Book Review – The Fur by Nathan Hobby

I actually read The Fur about four months ago, but because I had yet to crank up my blog at that stage, I never got around to reviewing it. Here, then, is my belated review of Nathan Hobby’s first novel, which won the TAG Hungerford Award in 2002.

The first thing to be said is that I ripped through this in about four hours. I’m sure that must be annoying – to spend years working on something that can be consumed in one afternoon and evening – but there it is. I am making a habit of binging on books lately, and The Fur was no exception. It’s about a young man by the name of Michael Sullivan, living with his parent/s in the W.A. locales of Collie, Bunbury and finally near Murdoch University. So this is a familiar terrain for W.A. readers.

Only it isn’t familiar at all. The central idea of the The Fur is, well, the fur. What is it? Who can say? The fur is some kind of fungal growth that covers everything from houses, windows to parts of people’s bodies. It’s not exactly malignant, but it’s inconvenient all the same. As a result, most of W.A. has been quarantined by the ‘Wealth, which is an ironic and apt contraction of Commonwealth. The Wealth, with the help of the UN, has rendered W.A. as some kind of exclusion zone. This reminds me of the ‘Zone’ around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine. So this is something of a science fiction narrative, and an alternate history at that: it seems that the fur first struck during the 1970s. And yet, in this alternate world, the Smashing Pumpkins still managed to release their album ‘Mellencollie and the Infinite Sadness.’ W.A., Hobby seems to be saying, is utterly insignificant to the rest of the world. Unless, of course, you happen to be living in it.

Michael Sullivan is at the crossroads of many things: school, love, family, and faith. All of these things impact upon him in the course of The Fur. Schoolwise, this is a familiar tale of trying to get through the TEE, which echoes nothing if not Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi. In matters of the the heart, Michael is afflicted by his affection for a series of young women, the most significant of whom is Rebecca. In terms of family, Michael has to deal with the death of his mother and moving away from his father’s home. Finally, Michael must contend with a number of theological questions in relation to his Christian faith. In short, there’s a lot on Michael’s plate in The Fur.

As I touched on before, the science fictional elements of this story are backgrounded. There is no attempt to bring them into focus. This works surprisingly well, despite the fact that the nature of the fur itself is a massive unsolved mystery. What this story is really about is the need for acceptance, the need to grow apart from one’s parents, and the need for love. These are all basic human drives, and thus Michael Sullivan is something of an everyman. This is a book about growing up, and the harsh lessons that one learns along the way.

When I said there were harsh lessons to be learned in (and from) The Fur, I meant it. There are no happy endings here. In a sense, nothing is resolved. One aspect I found frustrating was Hobby’s practice of unfolding plot-lines, only for them to shrivel and die before flowering (so to speak). In one episode, Michael and Rebecca plan to escape to Melbourne by way of a volleyball competition. This section is where The Fur seems most conventional, as Michael saves money for a false ID by working for an importer. There is even a scene in which he drinks the highly coveted and expensive Coca Cola. But the volleyball narrative drops away, and Michael moves on. This might be more realistic – for what is life but a series of disjointed and incomplete narratives? – but it is hard on the reader nonetheless.

And thus The Fur is ultimately about frustration. Sexual frustration, familial frustration, and existential frustration. We can feel Michael’s dis-ease, his restlessness. At times The Fur can be a confronting read. But it not an unrewarding one. One hopes that Hobby can build on this early success (he completed this novel at twenty years of age) in subsequent books. From what I’ve read of his thus-far unpublished second novel, The House of Zealots, further improvement seems likely.

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