By Sanne Tukker
**This review contains spoilers for Miles Allinson’s In Moonland. **
At times nothing can be more tempting than living in the past. Memories can have such a magnetic pull that it can feel impossible to steer away from them. I too am familiar with yearning for a past that is unattainable. Just before the start of the pandemic I had come home from living in Australia for a while. Melbourne, to be exact. Just as I was planning to go back and began saving money, the pandemic hit. While it was in full swing it forced me to reconsider why I wanted to go back in the first place and whether, perhaps, it was better to enjoy the untouched memories.
Melbourne is a city of contrasts, at least to me. It is a city of extreme freedom, happiness and love as well as a city of limitations, darkness and drug abuse. People who were struggling to overcome their anxieties and demons seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. Nonetheless, stumbling upon Miles Allinson’s second novel In Moonland, which is set partly in Melbourne, I found myself longing for the city again. Through the book I found a safe way back into my memories, through the eyes of characters that have lived in the city much longer than me, and who are deeply flawed in a way that I had become so familiar with. Upon reading the book, it became clear to me that not only does it manage to pull on my heartstrings, the publication of In Moonland could not have been more perfectly timed with its commentary on generational trauma and the way we treat the world.
In Moonland revolves around three main characters who are all related. The first character introduced is Joe. Joe lives in modern-day Melbourne and narrates the beginning of the book. Later, the story is told from the perspective of his father, Vincent, who left Melbourne during the 1970s to join the ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in India. The story concludes through the perspective of Sylvie, who is Joe’s daughter and lives in a postapocalyptic near-future in which Australia has been devastated by natural disasters.
As the book begun with descriptions of Joe and his life in Melbourne, I was thrown back into my memories of the city. Descriptions such as “empty suburbs, […] the same blazing 7-Elevens, the same ugly new apartment blocks” are all too familiar and highlight the dullness of the city’s architecture and its grey atmosphere. It reminded me of the one thing that most people I had encountered there had in common: they wanted to get away from Melbourne. Some wanted to escape to Europe, others to Japan, and others simply to New Zealand, but most wanted to just leave.
Vincent, Joe and Sylvie feel the need to escape as well, although with different degrees of urgency throughout the book. For the three of them, the need to get away arises largely from their lack of connectedness to their current time and place. To exemplify, Vincent is struggling greatly with the meaning of life and is trying to find something to hold on to. When he applies to get into the ashram he writes: “what is the meaning of life? […] Does God exist?
Why does it feel like my soul is entwined in shit?” and “[w]ho will show me how to love and live?”1
Although not literally stated by either Joe or Sylvie, similar questions can be found in their narratives as well. The feeling of impending doom appears to be a form of generational trauma that the three suffer from in their own way. It’s a feeling that I, as many others, have become too familiar with during 2020 and 2021. This makes the characters and their anxious thoughts fit seamlessly in our peri-pandemic, and (hopefully) near post-pandemic era.
At some point a character states that the “past holds endlessly more than the future and for that reason, doing anything to jeopardise the past is really just a disaster waiting to happen.” Although quite bleak and exemplary of the character’s lack of hope for the future, there is wisdom in this saying. It reminds me of my fear of meddling with my own memories. At times, the past can feel like a safe haven, free of threatening viruses and anxiety- it can be tempting to try and relive it. However, what has been will never come back and I need to learn to accept that, just like Allinson’s characters need to learn to accept their familial past in order to move forward.
Although Allinson has his characters dig into the past, his aim is never to show that one will find answers there or that the past was better than the future. The past, according to Allinson, is simply the past. It is not better. It is not worse. It just is. The only thing that the characters in In Moonland find, is that they carry the past and their generational trauma with them. As Joe is trying to relive his father’s life by traveling to places that his father has been to, he does not find what his father found all those years before and that is precisely the point. You cannot relive the past, no matter how hard you try. It can help make sense of where you are right now, but it will not give you any answers. It merely functions as a compass, and as a way of thinking through the present.
This takes me to a more implicit subject that the book deals with, namely the way we treat the planet. As we find in the last part of the book, Sylvie is driving through a Mad Max-esque environment on her way to her estranged father. As she is driving through this dystopian, rural, Australian landscape, the state of the country is described as: “[d]ull heat. The loneliness of wind across sandy fields. No birds, just flecks of black plastic, and higher up […] the sturdier bodies of tiny drones.” Sylvie’s environment feels like the amalgamation, the concretisation of the impending doom that her father and her grandfather have felt all those years. The people have not cared for the planet, and still do not care for the planet and now they must live on a planet that is trying its very best to be as hostile as possible. Nonetheless, humans remain on Earth like a pest that cannot be eradicated.
The characters in the book constantly question the ordinariness of civilisation as they know it, and this can be considered a critique of the way in which the world currently functions. With globalisation and capitalism unmoved on their pedestals, even when they were contributing factors to the pandemic we’re currently living through, questions of how we treat the planet and our own lives ought to be raised. Allinson’s characters raise such questions. When Vincent is in the ashram, he notices how sharply that life contrasts with his life in Melbourne. That disconnect leads him to question what life actually means and which form of civilisation is the real one, the correct one. “Maybe Australia was the aberration. Maybe this was the real world.” Vincent is open to ways of living that are not conventional, something we should be more open to in order to turn the tides in the destructive ways we are currently living on the planet. Considering most people’s desire to return to their pre-pandemic lives, certain questions must be asked. Wasn’t that way of living that got us in trouble in the first place? Should we not consider a way in which we live more in harmony with our planet? Taking Vincent’s train of thought, but slightly altering it: maybe the Anthropocene is the aberration. Maybe we should move away from an era in which human activity is what influences the climate and the environment the most, and reconsider what we find normal.
As Sylvie is making her way through the postapocalyptic landscape, it should come as no surprise that she is rather cynical towards the future. This kind of cynicism is not unfamiliar to me when it comes to Melbournians/Australians in general and I have never found it surprising. Australia is a country in which bushfires are a yearly problem and the country has only just lived through the so-called Black Summer of 2019-2020, during which 18.6 million hectares of land were destroyed by fire. Pessimism due to anxiety about one’s safety with regards to the climate in Australia is thus not surprising. It is the standard.
It can be questioned whether the impending doom that both Vincent and Joe were feeling was some form of gut feeling about the future, which has materialized during Sylvie’s lifetime. Sylvie often thinks about death without appearing to consider taking her own life as a real option. It emphasises a numbness with regards to the current state of the world as well as her own life. Her inability to enjoy life and find meaning in it appears to be generational, and considering the state of the world, perhaps not even unwarranted.
As the book concludes, Sylvie confides in Joe that she is pregnant. The book thus concludes on the appearance of a new life. It left me distraught. Will this new life have to endure the same generational traumas as those who came before? Will another generation be doomed to the same fears and anxieties? Or will this be a generation of change? A generation that looks at the past with consideration? Will it look at the past as a guide on how not to do things? This new life at the end of In Moonland leaves me with a similar feeling I had leaving Melbourne. It could be freedom, it could be love, but it could also be anxiety and fear. The only way to find out is to move into the unknown future which is inevitably influenced by the past.
Sanne Tukker is a graduate student in Media Studies at Utrecht University. As well as studying at Utrecht University, she has studied in Melbourne where she successfully finished a minor in Gender Studies. Her most recent publication is an essay on the representation of Black dancers, which can be found in the academic magazine BLIK.
- Allinson, Miles. In Moonland. Scribe Publications, 2021.