The Last Thread
By Michael Sala
Broken into two parts, Michael Sala’s The Last Thread tells the story of Michaelis (later, in an effort to fit in with his Australian home, Michael) and his family’s migration from The Netherlands to Australia, from Australia to The Netherlands, and back to Australia again. Largely autobiographical, it depicts his early years as the younger and, in his mind, less favoured of two brothers and their complicated relationship with their frustratingly inept mother. Detailing the years with a cruel and bullying stepfather, through the difficult terrain of family scandal surrounding their separation from an enigmatic father, and their mother’s frequently terrible choices in love and life, The Last Thread is at times both beautiful and poignant, if a little uneven.
The first section largely follows the chronology of events and is, I believe, the more successful part. Told in the subjective third person from the young Michaelis’s point-of-view, it weaves in and out of the lives of his family, which, much like the narrative, is in perpetual motion, staying still only long enough for Michaelis — and the reader — to begin to feel like he might have found a home. Each of these upheavals is driven by his complex and difficult mother’s search for happiness. Of course, this sort of search for happiness is futile and painful. The answers his mother seeks don’t exist outside herself and have nothing — or little — to do with geography, although the rendering of the Australian landscape in the 1970s through the eyes of a foreigner certainly paints a bleak and confronting picture of just how hostile and unforgiving it could be. (And perhaps - given the Cronulla riots, our treatment of asylum seekers and Indigenous Australia - still is.) While the family’s fate is driven by the mother’s pursuit of the impossible, the story is focussed on how Michaelis adjusts to these sudden and often shocking upheavals, without ever satisfactorily exploring the emotional toll these decisions have on the young and lonely boy, except in the pervasive sense of disconnection - from everything. The disconnect between the characters and their emotions echoes the disconnect this reader felt with Michaelis himself. Whether by accident or design, like Michaelis, the reader must also keep up with these jarring shifts, forced to reconnect the emotional fractures that characterise all of Michaelis’ relationships. To fill in the gaps. The effect is both compelling and frustrating.
The second part of the novel is told in first person, in the voice of Michael as the man he is today: a father and partner struggling to relinquish the tentacles of his torrid and fraught history. This section moves back and forth through Michael’s memories and his present day to varying success, with the added effect of bringing another dimension to the character, while still rendering him largely unknowable. It is as though by luring the reader to a point where we feel we’re just getting to know and understand this man/boy, we are abruptly delivered somewhere else, restricting us from the access we desire. Much as Michael/Michaelis is by his mother’s restless search for a place that feels like a home.
The backcover blurb tells us that “Michael — now a father — must decide if he can free himself from the dark pull of the past”, however, this is not where we find ourselves in the end. Rather, Michael — and the reader — are left grappling with the man he’s become, a man still bound by the suffocating fears and injustices that plagued his childhood years.
Overall, The Last Thread is rich and beautifully drawn but also, ultimately, vaguely unsatisfying. I suspect that the “truth” of this roman a clef is perhaps the very thing that limits its possibilities. I wonder why Sala chose to fictionalise at all when he seemed attached to a “true” or real ending that leaves us with more questions than answers. Just as Michaelis/Michael is a work in progress, The Last Thread felt a bit like an unfinished manuscript too. Having said that, there is much to enjoy in this novel, and I’m keen to read more of Sala’s fiction. My hope is that, next time, this talented and exciting new writer frees himself to move further from the autobiographical into the fictional where, I’m certain, breathtaking fiction awaits.