Can we outrun the past? Is it possible to escape anguish? In That Devil’s Madness, a family attempts to be freed from the landscape of their suffering, only to find that sorrow lives within.
Sablières, a village near Lyon, becomes a desolate place for Marius when he buries his wife Pauline in 1896. Compelled by the promise of a government-granted plot of land, he leaves behind three sons and travels to Algiers with his youngest, Louis.
They travel over land and sea and are met with sandstorms, thieves and, when they arrive, hard ground. But with the help of a local Berber family, Marius and Louis make their life anew.
Eighty years later, Louis’s granddaughter Nicolette clings to a doomed relationship. After growing up in the war zone of Algiers, her family arrived in Australia when she was 10. When we meet her, she is escaping Adelaide for a rural shack, desperate to leave behind a pattern of addiction. Her isolation leads to a family tragedy.
The story then skips a few years to Nicolette as a cadet photo-journalist at The Herald in Melbourne. She is one of few women on the team, patronised and dismissed by senior male staff. This, combined with an urge to rediscover her childhood in Algieria, lead to her taking an assignment to cover the death of that country’s president. The settings, as she travels through Marseilles and Algiers, are vast and exotic, making for a colourful reading landscape.
Wilson paints vibrant scenes, placing protagonists in the right place at the right time, allowing the personal witnessing of historical events. Death propels the characters to movement; by leaving the site of loss, Nicolette, Marius and Louis intend to escape the landscape of their suffering, certain of a brighter horizon.
“Was it really that easy,” Nicolette muses, “just pack up and go, and all your problems will stay behind?”
That Devil’s Madness has similar themes to 2014 historical novel The Secret Son, by Jenny Ackland, interweaving the dual histories of Australia and a Middle Eastern country. Like The Secret Son, That Devil’s Madness sweeps through the 20th century, illustrating the war that destroyed millions of lives, but also forged bonds between individuals. Perhaps this repetition of themes indicates the widespread acknowledgement of Australia’s multicultural foundation.
In That Devil’s Madness, Wilson meditates on the idea of escaping horror, and the psychic location of pain. How are we released from suffering – is it in the leaving of sites of misery, or the returning?