Considering one of Graham Rawle’s previous novels was composed entirely of text cut from vintage women’s magazines, it should come as no surprise that his latest offering is just as quirky. Overland is read horizontally, in landscape format, with parallel narratives running above and below the spine. Initially, I found this gimmicky and vaguely annoying, not least because it’s awkward holding a book sideways. But I persevered and it was worth it, because this novel is innovative, thought-provoking – and fun.
Set in Los Angeles in 1942, the story is based on true events. Hollywood set designer George Godfrey is hired by the US army to hide Burbank’s vast aircraft plant from Japanese reconnaissance planes. In the text above the book’s spine, we follow George as he lovingly creates a pleasant utopia of fields, streets and houses on the roof, but when he builds a fake ‘lake’ so he can go fishing, his superiors begin to doubt his sanity. Below the spine is the dark, hellish world of the factory floor where Queenie, and her Japanese-American friend, Kay, weld aircraft parts. Rawle is a masterful storyteller, and I found myself genuinely caring about the four main characters as their lives slowly begin to unravel. The author cleverly, and at times playfully, intertwines the ‘over’ and ‘under’ narratives – whilst fishing in his ‘lake’ in Overland, George’s line slips through a hole in the roof and drops to the factory floor below. Bemused, Queenie and Kay attach a tin of sardines to the hook which George promptly reels in.
Overland is amusing, surreal and whimsical, yet it is also unsettling and moving, particularly in its depictions of Hollywood’s sordid ‘casting couch’; the indignities of US internment camps for Japanese-Americans, and the psychological impact of war. Highly recommended.