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Book Review: Panthers and the Museum of Fire

As the narrator, Jen Craig, walks from her Glebe flat to a Crown Street café in around an hour on a Monday morning, her thought life moves in an apparent random and uneasy manner between times past and her present circumstances. An aspiring writer, she has had a breakthrough in her writing, dating from Saturday morning, and triggered by the reading of an unpublished manuscript of a recently deceased girlhood friend, Sarah, and bearing the same title as Jen Craig’s novella.

The title may not be the name but merely an idle jotting in Sarah’s handwriting on the front cover of her work. The manuscript, the narrator comments, “had nothing to do with the suggestive allure” the words promise, and are taken, she tells us, from an ordinary road-sign denoting tourist destinations aka merchandised venues. Nevertheless, the Penrith football team’s logo is a reminder of the persistent desire to believe in the big cat that lurks in the mountains, and also perhaps the ancient use of fire as a paradoxical test of truth.

After the funeral, the narrator tries to leave the manuscript behind at the house of Sarah’s sister, Pamela. It appears she cannot clearly recall her one-time friend whom she didn’t like much, but clearly remembers trying to avoid meeting a very overweight Sarah years later on the main street in Rockdale. It may be that Sarah evokes for her a troubled adolescence she wishes to annihilate: the memories of her religious conversion, the memories of feeling her family inferior to Sarah’s, the “killing” of her once anorectic self. She reads it, however, after a phone call from Pamela requesting her to return the manuscript unread.

Many of the narrator’s encounters are not directly remembered experiences but are often anecdotes the narrator has told, or will tell, to her friend, Raf, who is the single exception to her incapacity to cope with friendships with other people. She mentally rewrites events, savouring the moment when she will “be telling him something” over the preparation of prawns or bean salad, something that will get a laugh at someone else’s expense and garner Raf’s approval. Raf, she believes, makes a similar use of her to entertain his friends.

There is so much that is intriguing in Panthers. The insertion at certain points of deliberately poor quality black and white photos of maybe various landmarks along her journey inviting readers to speculate on their relevance to the text inevitably suggests the work of the German writer W.G. Sebald. Like Sebald, Jen Craig is concerned with both loss of memory and the falsification of experience and she explores her themes through the technique he pioneered, a hypnotic “mash-up” of fact and fiction.

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