We welcome author Adriane Howell to discuss the inspiration behind her debut literary novel Hydra, I share my review, plus thanks to Transit Lounge Publishing two lucky AU/NZ readers will win a paperback copy.
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Adriane Howell on her inspiration for Hydra
The manuscript was written over three years on Hydra and Crete and in Melbourne and Johannesburg. I’d been wanting to write a novel for some time and had gathered together a few thousand words but ultimately discarded them.
There was an image I kept returning to; a tale told around campfires across the country. I was interested in not only what was spoken but why, though I didn’t know how to address this mythology in a manner that wasn’t fanciful.
There was also my fascination with antiques. I’d grown up with collectors as parents and had strong memories from the 90s, of exploring the labyrinth that is Graham Geddes and the other antique stores along High St Armadale.
It was then, in 2018, when I attended a Rick Amor art exhibition at Niagara Galleries, that something sparked and the manuscript began to take form. Amor’s Mornington Peninsula paintings – his twisted moonah trees, haunted beachscapes and looming cargo ships – had me transfixed. I went online and discovered more of his work. His painting House by the Sea (2011) was my computer’s background for 4 years whilst I wrote and edited the book.
Perhaps then, Hydra could be described as a piece of ekphrasis, though it’s interesting that when it came to creating the cover with my publisher, and we made a few mocks with Amor’s artwork, it ultimately felt as though it were forced. I wanted it to work, like a teenage love affair, but the book had outgrown and drifted away from its original source.
I see Hydra then as a collage of concepts and my role as writer is to tie them together in a meaningful manner.
My protagonist, Anja, came to me when I was reading the titular characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I relished these fraught, awkward and unpredictable female voices.
So too did I enjoy the playfulness of an unreliable first-person narration. I’d been fascinated with the ‘unreliable narrator’ as a literary device since reading Humbert Humbert – Nabokov is either a wizard or a magician, depending on one’s view of the world.
Hydra entwines three narratives. This structure is integral to the crux of the book and its exploration of narration. I’d been reading Nicole Krauss and found her weaving of multiple narratives inspiring especially in Great House where stories loosely brush past each other, though never fully meet. My three narratives are set on the same property but each a different decade, so whilst echoes from previous periods linger, there is nothing tangible for the protagonists to grab hold of – much like anything otherworldly or supernatural.
I wanted each narrative styled differently and enjoyed novels that employed epistolary techniques – think Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – where documentation heightens the sense of realism in what is an otherwise implausible story. The juxtaposition between these real and unreal elements is incredibly unnerving. When I began researching HMAS Cerberus (the inspiration for my fictional location, HMAS Hydra), I found myself down a rabbit warren of declassified WWII naval documentation. It was all very dry and boring and I thought, how can I spice this up?
Hydra Book Synopsis
‘From the treacherous auction houses of Melbourne to the sun-struck islands of Greece, Hydra took me places I never expected to go. Adriane Howell writes with the dreamy precision of Marguerite Duras, the humour-laced disquiet of Patricia Highsmith. A fever dream of a debut – elegant, savage, and delightfully unhinged.’ – Laura Elizabeth Woollett, author of Beautiful Revolutionary and The Newcomer
Anja is a young, ambitious antiquarian, passionate for the clean and balanced lines of mid-century furniture. She is intent on classifying objects based on emotional response and when her career goes awry, Anja finds herself adrift. Like a close friend, she confesses her intimacies and rage to us with candour, tenderness, and humour.
Cast out from the world of antiques, she stumbles upon a beachside cottage that the neighbouring naval base is offering for a 100-year lease. The property is derelict, isolated, and surrounded by scrub. Despite of, or because of, its wildness and solitude, Anja uses the last of the inheritance from her mother to lease the property. Yet a presence – human, ghost, other – seemingly inhabits the grounds.
Hydra is a novel of dark suspense and mental disquiet, struck through with black humour. Adriane Howell beguilingly explores notions of moral culpability, revenge, memory, and narrative – all through the female lens of freedom and constraint. She holds us captive to the last page.
‘Hydra crosses planes; it is superb, distinct, and breathtaking. It surprises, disturbs and enthrals at every turn.’ – Angela Meyer, author of A Superior Spectre and Moon Sugar
(Transit Lounge Publishing, August 2022)
Genre: Literature, Drama, Historical, Mystery
In Hydra, Howell has brought together all that I love about literary fiction – multiple timelines, multi-layered mystery, characters drawn outside of the lines, dark humour and wonderful prose.
Her primary character’s enigmatic first-person narrative takes readers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, dark mood swings and questionable decisions. In less skilful hands, the intensity of this character’s journey might have left readers with whiplash. Instead, the artistry of the prose Howell employs to convey Anja’s candid narrative serves as a shock absorber or filter; like a painting’s frame, it offers containment while elevating focus and provoking thought about what is not shown.
… the reality is I had no qualms ransacking dead people’s houses. … … It was no surprise then, that I had found a home at Geoffrey Brown Auction House. I was filling an expectation, levelling that deep hole between what excited me and what was a respectable occupation. I was lucky the two soils could meet, though no one’s foundations are as solid as they think. Misstep here, landslide there, you’d be amazed what the earth coughs up.
I’ll admit , though, my return to work from the holiday was impetuous. Half of me had been swept away into the Aegean, and that which remained – the desperate half walking into work that morning – grasped familiarity as if it were a life raft.
Anja’s raw and at times erratic inner musings juxtaposed with the poised elegance of Howell’s prose proved beguiling. Highly recommended to fans of literary and experimental fiction.
BOOK RATING: 4/5
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About the Author, Adriane Howell
Adriane Howell is a Melbourne-based arts worker and writer who has lived in Paris and Johannesburg. In 2013 she graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. She is co-founder of the literary journal Gargouille. Hydra is her debut novel.
This review counts toward my participation in the 2022 Aussie Author Challenge.
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* My receipt of a review copy from the publisher did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.