I have discussed Julia Leigh’s brilliance before, and her first novel The Hunter did nothing but compound my thinking that she is one of the best writers working today. Her prose is like broken glass – sharp, precise, clean – and the premises of her two novels are jarring and insightful at once. Her ability to take relatively few plot points, a handful of unique characters and paint a vibrant landscape of human emotion is awesome. Leigh isn’t easy to read, but everyone should. All the MFA kids should take a leaf from her book.
Characteristically, The Hunter is a simple story. A man, Martin Davis, called M., is hired by a pharmaceutical company to hunt the last thylacine cat, an animal that many believed is extinct. When rumors begin to waft down from the high Tasmanian hills that a female thylacine is on the prowl, the pharmaceutical company wants its blood and hair for medicine. The thylacine takes on a mythical properties, like that of a unicorn, as the stories spin that this animal’s body has properties that can save humans from life-threatening disease.
M., who, as he traverses the jungle landscape to find the big cat, becomes the archetypical man and the consummate hunter, is deeply troubled. His past is mottled with broken relationships and casual sexual flings. When he thinks of his parents, he immediately dismisses their memory, as if they were no more important to him than any random wild animal he sees during his nightly watches. In fact, he doesn’t know if they’re alive or dead. Clearly, despite the defensive bravado, he craves a family, or at least a place to belong. The family that he stays with during his breaks from the hunt is broken in every way that a family can be broken: the father, himself a hunter of the thylacine, is presumed dead; the mother, a drug-addict, neglects her children; and the two children barely hold themselves and the house together. M. must rely on the memory and organization of the little girl, Sass, to make sure the authorities are called if he doesn’t return on time. Although, he realizes the profound dysfunction of the house and thus the great danger to him (what if he breaks a leg up in the hills and Sass is too busy playing to call the authorities?), he nonetheless repeatedly returns to this house, rather than find lodging elsewhere. This isn’t a perfect family, but it’s something, and he can visualize himself with them.
However, the most significant relationship in the novel exists between M. and the thylacine. He pursues her, tempts her like a lover, and towards the end his entire existence is consumed with longing for his prey. He imagines himself a god, searching out the delicate mortal. At points, the reader is unsure of whether M. has seen the cat or if he has gone crazy, imagining shadows and sounds in his desperate loneliness. However, as he closes in on his target, it is clear that he is the only one who understands this creature and will prevail where other hunters have failed.
This is not a redemptive story, though M. experiences some change by the end, but rather an investigation of pathological experience. What happens when a man – lonely, broken, bloodthirsty – goes deep in the Tasmanian darkness to hunt a prized creature? What will the conclusion be and who, ultimately, is the hunter?
If you liked this, you might also like:
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Disquiet by Julia Leigh