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Of blood and ink.

July 21, 2011

Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor, Scribe, $24.95

In Indelible Ink, an ageing divorcee from Sydney’s affluent north shore becomes addicted to getting tattooed while her uptight thirty-something children look on in muted horror. It almost sounds like a comedy, but Fiona McGregor’s fourth novel is a bleak portrayal of contemporary Sydney, its grotesque characters made palatable by their creator’s deft eye for satire and pathos.

Marie is 59 and lives in a lavish waterfront mansion with only a decrepit cat for company. After years spent as well-to-do wife and mother, Marie faces an uncertain future—in the aftermath of her divorce from a successful advertising man, she must sell the house to cover her mounting debts. Leaving aside the unsettled nature of the post-GFC property market, Marie is haunted by deeper and more elusive problems. She begins to question the decisions that have shaped her identity: ‘sometimes, when she looked back at her past, all Marie could see was childhood followed by marriage with nothing in between’.

After a drunken lunch and an awkward vomiting incident in an ritzy homewares shop, Marie ends up in a tattoo parlour in Kings Cross. The lilies she chooses for her right ankle are only the beginning of what becomes an obsessive project to turn her body into a tapestry of botanic art, to the predictable horror and bewilderment of her family and social circle.

The symbolism of this isn’t exactly subtle—it’s a little like being hit on the head with a novel-shaped mallet that says MID-LIFE CRISIS NARRATIVE. But McGregor is a skilled weaver of words and ideas, and Marie’s metamorphosis is thoughtfully rendered. As someone who has only ever been defined by others—a fate that must be painfully familiar to many women of her generation—she strives to define herself on her own terms as her life begins to change, and to literally and metaphorically create a new self. Choosing her first tattoo as her drunkenness fades, ‘Marie’s desire remained white and certain as bone’. After befriending her tattoo artist, Rhys, Marie comes to know an entirely different Sydney—one far removed from the advertising parties and expensive décor of Marie’s privileged, but ultimately rather empty, existence. As she draws further away from her circle of sleek North Shore friends and prepares to sell her house, she and her three grown children contend with the minutiae of modern life: office politics, family dramas, health problems, and the looming beast of the Sydney property market and its GFC-related vagaries.

Indelible Ink attempts to offer a panorama of urban Australia by exploring the conflicts within a privileged family, and McGregor’s reach sometimes exceeds her grasp. The novel sprawls and meanders, much like its characters, and it’s more than two hundred pages before any real plot developments take place; it takes even longer for them to actually go anywhere.

Nonetheless, it becomes an absorbing ride, and I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to begrudge a novel for taking its time; particularly when, in this case, the slow accumulation of actions, thoughts, and exchanges so finely reflects the reality of contemporary life. McGregor’s prose evocatively captures a sense of time and place—the stifling heat of a Sydney summer, where ‘the thrumming of cicadas came in waves’, and the harbour unfurls ‘like rippled silk’.

But McGregor’s depictions of the people who inhabit this universe strike the sharpest chord. Marie’s self-discovery is also an unmooring, a sudden drop of the curtain between her private and public self, and between herself and those around her. Although she has been friends with Susan, the wife of her ex-husband’s former business partner, for decades, Marie suddenly realises that they hardly know each other: ‘what am I doing with this woman?’ Sitting in the tattoo parlour reflecting on her own children, a miserably self-absorbed trio, Marie realises that ‘Clarke, Blanche and Hugh were so much more earnest than the people here. They had entered a No-Fun zone with adulthood’. Indelible Ink is as much their story as it is Marie’s—the narrative switches constantly between the petty dramas of Blanche’s high-powered job in advertising (where she spends an inordinate amount of time lying on her office floor, watching videos on youtube, and eating the organic chocolate produced by a new client company), Clarke’s fumbling affair with a married woman, and Leon’s bittersweet return to Sydney after years in Brisbane.

Although McGregor’s decision to weave Marie’s story with that of her children’s makes Indelible Ink more resonant as a social commentary, most of the characters border on grotesque. It’s not quite The Slap, but, as unflattering societal portraits go, Indelible Ink has some mirror-cracking moments. Some of these are brilliant—at a dinner party, Marie ‘wished she could remove the words debt, afford, and hate Mosman from what she had just said’; in the newly trendy suburb of Redfern, ‘the Hillsong church on the next block was spewing its Diesel and Tsubi congregation out to the footpath while a line of Toyotas and four-wheel drives emerged from its underground carpark like a series of metal turds’.

But 450 pages of characters with the emotional maturity of toilet paper soon become tiring. It’s hard to care much when Clarke and Blanche ache over the impending loss of their family home—selling the mansion, what a shame—and even Marie, who continues to spend money she doesn’t have and barely considers the idea of finding a job in order to pay off her mounting debts, inspires little sympathy. For all its insightfulness, McGregor’s portrayal is also a little too familiar: the wealthy and privileged are shallow and spiteful, whereas those from the other end of the social spectrum are warm-hearted and level-headed.

But Indelible Ink remains a cleverly written and insightful piece of work. Marie is more upset over the loss of her lovingly tended garden than her house, and for the greater loss that her move represents—the North Shore is filling with the nouveau riche and their expensively hideous houses, ‘just slabs of cement plonked in the middle of the bush’. As Marie covers her skin with botanic-themed art, she wishfully imagines a similar fate for her house, and perhaps her past: ‘abandoned by its owner, dilapidated beyond repair, the bush creeping back over it’.

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