Eleanor Rigby lives in darkness. She is blind and, although she lives with her mother, this woman’s emotional state means Eleanor may as well be living alone. She spends her nights lost in nightmares and her days running from them.
Ewan McGregor is similarly damaged. He is agoraphobic, although he is more afraid of other people than of being outside, making early morning dashes to the shops for his supplies. He spends his days playing his cello to himself and thinking of ways to get rid of the two possums infesting his house.
The pair come into each other’s lives unexpectedly. Ewan takes his cello out onto the front veranda for the first time ever and Eleanor, walking past, stops to listen to him play. She is drawn both to the music and to Ewan, prehaps recognising a kindred spirit. Their friendship is neither instant or orthodox. Both have hang-ups and ghosts which stop them from trusting, from voicing their feelings and from giving too much. Eventually, though, some sort of connection is made.
It is no coincidence that Silvey’s main character has the same name as the Beatles’ song and readers may well find themselves singing the song as they read the book. Rhubarb is a book about lonely people – and not just Eleanor and Ewan. ALL the characters are ‘lonely people’ – Eleanor’s mother, who spends her days and nights in front of the television; Frank, who is one of the few people Eleanor makes conversation with regularly and who lives in denial of his wife’s death; even Bruno, the pseudo-Italian (he’s really Romanian) deli-owner and his long-suffering wife Althea. Perehaps Silvey is trying to tell us that we are all lonely people?
There is no doubt that Silvey is a talented first-time novelist with a mark to make on the literary world. His story is rich and multi-layered and speaks directly to the reader. He weaves symbolism into the fabric of the tale and his characters, though tragic, seem somehow real. At times, though, the story seems to get lost behind this cleverness, with the reader left groping for the plot, wondering whether the diversion is necessary or even fruitful. In the end, however, the reader is able to overlook this and focus on the skilful rendering of the tale of the two protagonists.
A resonant read.
Rhubarb, by Craig Silvey
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004