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“Young love” is a dirty word.

April 11, 2011

Me and Mr Booker by Cory Taylor, Text Publishing, $32.95

In Me and Mr Booker, Cory Taylor gives us a pithy and witty reworking of a Lolita-esque tale: a teenage girl and a thirty-something man in an ill-advised secret tryst that can only end one way. (Badly, in case you weren’t sure).

This is familiarly doomed romantic territory, but Taylor’s deceptively spare prose and lifelike characters give it a thoughtful and provocative edge.

Sixteen-year-old Martha is no Lolita. Although ‘there was something in the way I appeared’ that made men of a certain age ‘stare’ and ‘kiss me on the cheek when they said hello,’ she claims to be ‘too pale and sad-looking’ to be pretty. This doesn’t bother her: I’m saving myself for Mr Wrong, she deadpans to a cousin who asks if she has a boyfriend.

Dry-witted and introspective, Martha believes that her mysterious appeal lies in ‘whatever it was that I was waiting for’. She and her separated parents live in a ‘kind of no-man’s-land’ town that ‘wasn’t a city but wasn’t the country either’, a stultifying place where everyone was ‘trying to move on and start something, anything at all, even if it was almost certain to go bad’.

Enter Mr Booker, and the inevitable but irresistible possibility of numerous bad things.

Unfortunately, Mr Booker comes with Mrs Booker; the couple have moved to Martha’s town from England. She is taken with them both—they have ‘the same curly black hair and glowing skin, the same way of walking and smoking cigarettes, as if they’d been watching each other and perfecting the same gestures all their lives’. But it is Mr Booker, with his rakish charm and whimsical wit, who captures her heart and mind and throws her into the heady spin of first love.

This is more than a coming-of-age tale. A keen observer, Martha’s narration makes Me and Mr Booker a wistful and poignant meditation on the emotional traps that we so easily set for ourselves. Her experience is refracted through a kind of narrative double-vision—an older, possibly wiser Martha tells the story, and she weaves memories of her teenage infatuation with considered reflections on the messy, unfulfilling relationships of her family, particularly her parents. Her aimless and bitter father, who has recently moved into a nearby motel after Martha’s mother asked him to leave, seems both unable to accept the end of his relationship with Martha’s mother, and unable to forgive her for ending it in the first place. But Martha’s mother cannot bring herself to sever their ties completely; her husband is ‘some kind of sick habit she was never going to kick’.

Martha’s opinion of her parents is stained by years of witnessing their tiresome games of emotional hardball. ‘He’ll live,’ she says of her father’s possible suicide attempt, ‘unfortunately’.

But Mr Booker slides between the cracks of her cynicism, and she pursues him with the intense naiveté of precocious adolescence. She’s performing raunchy sex acts on him by the end of chapter one, but, after weeks of secret meetings in motel rooms, she mildly suggests that ‘it would be good if we could spend the whole night together’. His response—silence—tells us all we need to know.

As an illicit lover, Mr Booker sets all the alarm bells ringing, but he possesses fatal levels of charm and charisma to offset his caddish behaviour: Taylor makes him as beguiling as he is frustrating. He calls Martha ‘Bambi’ and tells her that everything sounds sadder in French. ‘Take me away from all this,’ he says, looking at her with his ‘dark eyes’ that were ‘so steady and serious it was hard for me to look back’. We understand and forgive Martha’s pursuit of his affections, even as it becomes increasingly fruitless.

For all his attractions, Mr Booker is, of course, a coward—he cannot face the difficult decision that Martha must eventually shoulder herself. ‘Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch’ he says, apropos of nothing, when she asks him if he thinks she should move to Sydney. ‘It was just the way Mr Booker talked when he was excited about something…a lot of what he said was like that, like lines of a long poem that was writing itself in his brain the whole time’.

Martha isn’t blind to her lover’s faults: she is too observant and smart for that. She may also be too patient and forgiving, but it becomes clear that her hopeless romance will give her the means to a better end. ‘I was tired of waiting for my life to start,’ she says, ‘and when I met him it was like I could finally stop waiting and make something happen’. What determines Martha’s fate rests on her dawning awareness of whether that desired something will involve Mr Booker or not.

Taylor’s achievement with this novel is to make a familiar story about first love encompass so much more. Martha is surrounded by the dissatisfaction of adult lives that have veered slightly and disappointingly off-course, and her experience with Mr Booker is both an end and a beginning: it represents the confusing crossroads of early adulthood, and those decisions we make that cast their shadow long over our futures.

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