“Volcano Street” is partly like an Ibsen drama, partly like a Vincent Price creep show, but mostly it is an innovative coming-of-age story. Twelve year old Helen (who likes to be called Skip) and her teenage sister Marlo move in with their domineering aunt Noreen after their single mother is put in a mental institution. The girls have been heavily influenced by their liberal mother Karen Jane who was very anti-establishment and anti-war. Marlo emphatically reads “The Female Eunuch.” In a difficult situation the girls will ponder “What would Germaine do?” So it is quite a shock when they are moved to a small conservative town where Marlo is forced to give up school to work for her aunt. Skip’s tomboy behaviour is deeply frowned upon and criticized. Noreen and many people in the town regularly spout racist or homophobic jokes or insults. There is a fascinating clash in ideologies. As the girls grow and change, they come to know some people who have been outcast and scorned by the majority of the town. Gradually they find a place where they fit in the community and a way to go forward in the world.
David Rain describes Skip’s development so well. She’s the kind of feisty, creative character you really want to root for. Her close relationship with Marlo alters as her sister’s values change and she begins a relationship with a man. The antagonistic relationship between Skip and a local boy named Honza gradually develops into a close friendship. This shows how our connection to other people changes as we grow and find our view of the world altering. At first Skip’s perspective is fixed firmly in the moment and her immediate surroundings. But gradually this opens up to include broader points of reference so that she sees what has come before and how provincial her surroundings really are: “Dull, sensible South Australia was not all it seemed. Volcanoes had once shaken this green corner of the state; riven with fissures, faults, subterranean channels, the earth spoke of strangeness. This hole in the ground was a prehistoric pit. The park above, with its rows of roses, the town hall with its tick-ticking clock, were the merest imposition on a timeless land.” Skip learns that life in this town is fleeting and circumscribed. This shift in perspective is an essential part of development as it shows how opportunities in life need not be limited by the short experience or the small-minded views of those around us. At first we accept everything about our surroundings because it’s all we’ve known, but as we learn about history and radically other ways of living we seek out what’s different to assimilate into places and connect with people we feel a more natural kinship to. Rain’s novel skilfully articulates and beautifully plots out these remarkable stages of development.
There is a dramatic shift two thirds of the way through this novel when the story breaks partly away from Skip to focus on a different story. Skip has long been haunted from watching the classic Vincent Price flick House of Wax. She is sometimes shadowed by a mysterious man who turns out to be a hidden member of the community that has a fascinating story of his own. Roger was a man who grew up in the town with tremendous promise as an actor. He’s singled out by Laurence Olivier who toured through Australia alongside his wife Vivien Leigh looking for fresh talent. Roger and his lover/mentor Quentin move to London as a consequence of this to launch Roger’s performing career. But soon their relationship deteriorates into a hostile partnership trapped in a squalid room. The inequity and jealousy between the couple is terrifyingly reminiscent of playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell. I believe this change in story between Skip’s development to Roger’s rise and downfall is meant to reflect the tension between emerging into the world and retreating back to the place of our origin. While both of these stories are compelling and well-told I’m not sure they integrate fully together as the novel reaches a dramatic climax towards the end. Nevertheless, this is a novel with tremendous force, intelligence and passion. Skip is a wonderfully realized character and certain vivid scenes from “Volcano Street” will stick with me.