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Gaby Naher

Gaby Naher

FOUR YEARS AGO, The Underwharf received critical  plaudits of the "reminiscent of Helen Garner" and  "intoxicating, strikingly fresh" kind. Keen judges predicted big things for Gaby Naher's first novel, and many were surprised it sold, as she says, only "moderately well". Possibly it was swamped in the undertow from the then marketing-driven New Wave of dirty realist hype. Which is a shame because, as a literate, evocastive and emotionally potent novel, it deserved better. And it's not often that journalists are phoned, as I was then, by a rival publisher strongly advocating another house's author.

Now Naher has released her second novel, Bathing in Light (Allen & Unwin, 229pp, $17.95), and again trade expectations are high. At 32, the author is "more hopeful and morephilosophic". Four years in the crafting, her tale about families, sibling love, pain, pleasure, the seductiveness of the sea and the secrets that bind is accomplished and absorbing. There's an intimacy to the narrative that confronts serious questions without flinching; it tackles sexuality and sensuality as well as it revolves on its Sydney-London axis. And there's a surprisingly youthful enthusiasm, with eulogy elbowing streetwise edginess aside.

Pivotal to the tale, Naher stresses, is her heroine's "spiritual centering" through the landscape and her inherent relationship to the sea. "This has a powerful contemporary significance, I think, as more and more people turn their backs on religion and seek different spiritual centres in their lives."

After nearly a decade of being in the business of writing, Naher has only just moved into the business of being a writer full time. Although she is quietly confident of her product, few understand better the vicissitudes of publishing and marketing.

As soon as she completed her communications degree at Sydney's University of Technology (which followed a year's aprés school/pre-uni study break in Paris as an au pair ostensibly attending the Sorbonne), the Castle Crag-raised Naher followed up a fusillade of letters to British publishers canvassing work. In London, Chatto took her on in publicity after "two weeks on their reception desk where I managed to offend many people, including Iris Murdoch whom I announced to Carmen Callil as 'Mr Murdoch'". A year later, she moved to Hodder and work on publicity for the Dalai Lama's biography, "a life-altering job in many ways. He is so charismatic, and he gives you such a strong sense of being in the now. I had only a very short time in his presence but he really touched me." Bhuddism - "reading rather than practising", she stresses - became an enduring influence in the one-time Catholic schoolgirl's life.

Then followed a stint as part of a four-person staff producing 40 top quality books a year at Serpent's Tale, which involved "many non-glamorous but fun days" travelling around Britain with authors in buses, cars and trains. On one suvh tour, American crime novelist Walter Moseley "outed" her as a writer. "I did have some aspirations to write, and was doing so after hours, but he told me I would never do it in any significant way unless I admitted it to everyone and allowed myself to acknowledge all my fears." She had been working on an endless novel since university, eventually finishing it while in New York on a six month publishing assignment. While waiting for an agent's decision ("justifiably negative"), she began The Underwharf.

Realising that to write about her country she had had to be there, she returned home. "It was time to settle down, and besides I wanted to be near my father." Her parents had separated when she was five and she and her elder sister lived with their mother. But Naher cherished her father, a Swiss-German who arrived in Australia as a boy in 1928 "on a ship carrying the steel for the Harbour Bridge". He was a warm, humane and funny man, famous for his expertise at running fine-dining, five-star hotels "and a continuing influence on my life. I'd been away 6 years and I realised that the opportunity for us to spend time together was becoming limited."

Shortly after completing her novel, she joined Jill Hickson at her high-profile literary agency, where her clients included Mandy Sayer, Luke Davies, Catharine Lumby and Kathryn Lowe among many. It was a full-on roundabout of negotiation and networking, albeit with some civilised latitude for writing.

But her life, always eventful, became even more roller-coaster-ish in the past 15 months. In June last year her father died, just days before she sold the rights to Bathing in Light. In December she and her partner, international banker Paul Watchman, bought their inner city tri-story terrace (and moved in to the renovation requirements of new kitchen, etc). Earlier this year, Hickson's decision to sell up her business coincided with Naher's own decision to write full-time. And in May, after nine years together, she and Watchman married. Twice. Once in a sunset-in-Sydney harbourside ceremony, and again in an atmospheric Cambridge chapel for her husband's English relatives. Then they honeymooned in France, not by lolling at the Cote D'Azur but by trekking through hills and mountains "and collecting lots of blisters and strained muscles".

PSYCHOLOGISTS say the stress from any event like a family bereavement, buying houses, changing jobs or celebrating a significant milestone (like marriage) is enough to severely stretch emotional limits. Who knows how they'd rate the strain of four (or five, if you count the cathartic uncertainties of a new novel) such events in quick succession?

Naher, however, is seriously serene when I arrive at her Darlinghurst HQ. Or as serene as any person who is private by nature can be when fending off the bounding enthusiasms of their Dalmatian-cum-blue cattle dog, Bono (named after the U2 frontman, not Edward de), making coffee, girding herself for the spotlight and explaining the Aladdin's cave of attractions on display.

Her house, on a ridge overlooking a quintessential Sydneyscape of inner city gables, CBD towers and harbour glimpses, is an elegant trove of mementos and objets d'art, some her own, many heirlooms from her father's former grand hotel, the landmark Belvedere. Such as the very large marble statues of Bacchus and several of his classical mates. Or the lion skin, complete with disconcertingly life-like head, that drapes the chaise longue. Or the intricately carved furnishings, or the historic paintings that line the walls.

As we settle around a subdued log fire in her mid-level office, she laughs at being caught in what seems like scene-setting ("when it's not") and being a writer without tools ("my computer is in the workshop for a grease and oil change"). Besides which, her energies are diverted. There's the book's launch imminent, "weeks and weeks of research backed up" on her next project - "an eccentric family" memoir called The Cheese Tree - and this afternoon she's to judge a young writers' short story competition.

The events of the past year or so have changed her, she allows, given a defining perspective to her personal values. Tall and poised with a bearing of calm competence, this yoga devotee has always presented a public persona of confidence and focus. She laughs when I mention this: "I wish. Focus is what I am always trying to achieve. But it has become more defined, philosophically and practically, this year." In many ways, her life has echoed the creative journey of Bathing in Light: that also became an expedition with unexpected and surprising byways, both physical and emotional.

Her impetus had been to investigate a suicide: "I was very interested to explore the dark, secret and destructive things that happen within a family, which every one knows about but no one will admit. It was not the actual events that intrigued as much as their repercussions, and long-term legacy - and the strategies and self-deceptions people adopt to cope."

Her heroine, the ethereally named Skye, is a sassy journalist with attitude, a devoted daughter to an author mother (and prominent environmentalist father) who idolizes her barrister brother with a fervour verging on the emotionally incestuous. But where she embraces everything she loves whole-heartedly, he denies himself. "It's an intriguing juxtaposition," Naher agrees, "one I see as an indication of how self-destructive self-denial can be." And although the novel is framed by a wake and a suicide, it is not about death so much as "an exposition of how a woman learns to exalt in her life. It became very much a story of survival, of life affirmation rather than destruction."

Which makes the recent visit of Alex the whale to Sydney's harbour doubly serendipitous. Her book's cover features a spotlit whale's tail. It could easily be superimposed on newspaper images of the cavorting Alex. "I went out several times to see him," she enthuses, "and stood on the shore amid the hundreds of jostling observers he attracted. And everyone was amazed by him, and thrilled to be there. And all we could really see was this waving tail. But that sense of joy and euphoria he gave everyone is exactly what I was trying to convey in my novel." Sometimes, life has a winning synchronicity.

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1999

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