Review by Gabriel
The Solid Mandala tells the story of the Brown brothers, Waldo and Arthur, non-identical twins living in the small Australian town of Sarsaparilla. It’s a novel about lost souls and everyday saints, and what they do to find a place in the world, told with all the beauty and poignancy one can expect of White.
White has gone for the literary trope of twins that embody his notions of “good” and “bad”, and his world view is clearly laid out as a result.
Waldo is a failed writer who upholds his sense of superiority by remaining aloof. He collects knowledge, but understands little due to his stubborn godlessness. Bitter and selfish, he is incapable of loving others except on his own narrow terms.
Arthur, on the other hand, is a ‘dill’ with an unspecified intellectual impairment, ennobled by his selflessness and his capacity for love. He is also impulsive, sensuous and consciously disregards social norms. In contrast with Waldo whose intellectualism is driven by a need to feel superior, Arthur has a natural wide eyed curiosity about spirituality and, or course, literature.
All of which makes him a little too perfect. He springs from the womb a fully enlightened person, and undergoes no character development throughout the novel. He’s a sympathetic character, but one that is completely unrelatable. It’s no surprise that the bulk of the novel focuses on Waldo, who seems capable of anything, constantly teetering on the edge between sinfulness and redemption.
The novel is divided into four sections, with the middle portions devoted to Waldo and Arthur. These are bookended by short sections focusing on Mrs Poulter, a familiar of Arthur’s with more worldly concerns. She is paired alternately with a narrow minded biddy and her callous husband, parallels of Waldo in the established dichotomy. It is her interaction with the latter that suggests White’s ultimate pessimism for the place of love in the world.
Not much happens in the novel. The brothers lives are mundane. Their childhood and adolescents are recounted in detail, and then they are suddenly old men, with no marriage of children to mark the intervening years. I’m not ruining anything by telling you this. White isn’t read for edge of your seat thrills and plot twists, but for his skill with language, his exploration of characters and his epic themes.