Call it the Merchant/Ivory syndrome: "My, what beautiful wallpaper!" Malouf, whose last novel, "Remembering Babylon," was short-listed for the Booker Prize, spreads thick his beautiful, evocative prose in "The Conversations at Curlow Creek," but the swatches hang together in a slightly mismatched and irritating pattern, never cohering into a whole.
The plot, as Malouf sets it up, is interesting: Two Irishman -- one a career soldier, the other a rebel peasant -- spend the night in a hut in the outback of Australia in 1827, the officer present to oversee the dawn hanging of the peasant. The peasant had wanted a priest, and he's ready to pour his heart out; the soldier wants to go home to claim the girl of his dreams.
The majority of the book, however, is given over to a backstory that would've made Dickens proud. Every last detail of the soldier's upbringing amidst the Irish gentry is recounted. We learn of the tragic death of his opera-singer parents, his adoption by eccentric landowners, his love for the wealthy, smart and reckless neighbor girl, as well as his having to raise his adopted parents' son. There is an inevitable triangle between the soldier, the girl and the son, a three way psychological tug of war for affection. The soldier is all order. The neighbor girl is all fire. The young boy is all rebellion. The soldier traipses around the world to exorcise his demons and to find the inner spark that will win the girl. In New South Wales he learns that the boy he raised has become a rebel leader. By the time he gets to Curlow Creek the only survivor of the young man's band is a lone peasant to be hung in the morning.
Unfortunately, little is exchanged between these characters. Instead there are many poetic passages about rivers, trees and horses. The central theme -- the inner conflict of chaos and order -- is merely glimpsed in a few compelling passages. With this kind of book, you forget why you are reading it and find it easy to put aside when your eyes glaze over as you stare at the pretty words.