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The Colour of the Night by Robert Hollingworth
Melbourne: Hybrid, 2014
Those of you arriving home after dark might raise your head a moment between the taxi and your front door and consider the colour of the night. How was it different that time you went camping, or when you saw it on the television? Stef; troubled artist, wife and mother, wearily notes, ‘Everyone’s painted the sky – all the way back to Constable.’ It takes the observations of an eleven year old displaced orphan to open her eyes.
‘Sometimes it’s yellow with all the lights, or orange with the cars and factories. Sometimes it’s just dark with all the fruit bats flying through it. Have you ever seen the Rainbow Lorikeets fly over? They are as free as the wind. All those colours.’ (p.186).
The Colour of the Night is an alternate Neighbors. Most of the action takes place in Frederick Street, Melbourne, where many of the characters live, but it is a darker Melbourne. The Colour of the Nightoffers third person omniscient viewpoints, alternating within chapters and paragraphs, not allowing the reader to develop empathy for any character before the next jumps into view. Readers are kept on edge. Do we identify with husband or wife? Goth or refugee? World-weary sculptor or disillusioned ecologist? How do we see?
The story opens with the curiously deep-thinking pre-teen Shaun listening to the sounds of his native bushland; the ‘cuckoo’s gentle trill, the scornful chatter of thornbills’. The dichotomy of city versus the bush is quickly established, with Shaun’s arrival in the city a catalyst for discovery within each character. Though Shaun’s displacement is caused by the death of his parents in the Black Saturday bush fires, he is a hopeful character, and one for whom being alone is not loneliness. The city experiences a localised disaster; a foundation-shattering earthquake caused by the Nick the landlord’s DIY renovations. Repercussions are soon felt in neighborhood relationships as people gather to gape, just as in the bush where changes to the environment affected people and relationships.
There are two characters living their lives online. Elton, Shaun’s city cousin, holes up in his darkened room playing virtual games on multiple computers. Visits from the next-door brother and sister disrupt his way of life, but it is Shaun who triggers redemption. The other online user is the scourge of our times. He monitors his own webcam, watching the neighbors and then one neighbor specifically.
The artistic process is scrutinised by the author, also a well-renowned visual artist. Stef and Simon are married artists with opposing techniques and philosophies. Simon exposes the relationship between artist and critic; ‘You’d be amazed what glamourous things academics can say about your work. I know an art critic who has enough of the right words to turn that into a masterpiece.’ (p.189). This story, though, is about ways of seeing, and it isn’t the critic who stacks the discarded car headlights on top of one other and turns the lights on to illuminate waste.
Shaun’s care for the native animals contrasts markedly with the detached attitudes of his city neighbors. Are they so desensitised to humanity they ignore pain and depravity? Never mind the city; Frederick Street is in crisis, with adultery, drug use, casual sex, pornography, self-harm, neglect, and unauthorised building work. It is to Jess, the goth who is always angry, that Shaun finally expresses his anger. It is Arman, the Afghan taxi-driver, though who first takes action for Shaun.
The shift in setting from Frederick Street to Hembridge in the aftermath of the fire is a time of reflection and defining moments for some of the characters. It is here that the chasm of dichotomies is lessened as people reconnect, find balance and their own way forward.
Robert Hollingworth online: roberthollingworth.com.au