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Books like these.

December 20, 2011

Sometimes I’m just not sure how I feel about a book. I picked up a copy of Australian author Virginia Duigan’s novel Days Like These in the final days of the epic Borders everything-must-go closing sale earlier this year; I’ve been intending to read her latest, The Precipice, since I took the reading copy from work several months ago. Days Like These hasn’t exactly cemented my enthusiasm.

Having read an interview with Duigan, a former journalist who spent many years living and working in London, I get the impression that Days Like These—her first novel—draws heavily on some of her own experiences. It takes place in 1984, when Lou, an Australian journalist who’s just jumped ship on a doomed five-year relationship with a married man in New York, flees to London to stay with Miriam, an old university friend. Drawn back into the social circle of her student days, Lou finds herself unwittingly entangled in a series of personal dramas that encapsulate the frustrations of modern relationships: old flames, jealous friends, mother-daughter tensions, and moral dilemmas vie for her attention. Lou would probably have added five years to her life if she’d just stayed in New York.

Days Like These is an intelligent domestic drama, and Duigan never lets her characters’ various crises slide into the melodramatic or mundane. There’s nothing exceptional about their predicaments—Mim’s marriage is on the verge of collapse, and Lou struggles with conflicted feelings about her ex—but such moral dilemmas provide ripe fictional territory. Lou’s return to the people and places of her student days allows Duigan to explore the complex dynamics of old friendships, as dormant tensions and attractions rise to the surface and demand to be renegotiated in the wake of fast-approaching middle age. Caught between past and present, and suddenly faced with her friends’ problems as well as her own, Lou begins to gain some fresh perspective.

But despite some sharp writing and an engaging, well-paced narrative, Duigan’s characters fall short of the mark. They feel like caricatures, too over-the-top and starkly drawn to be either wholly convincing or sympathetic. Jack, Mim’s openly philandering husband, is intolerably theatrical, a ‘predator preparing to pounce’ with transparently smooth charm; Mim herself is the opposite, so kindly and forgiving that she’s unable to ever see the bad in anyone, regardless of whether they’re openly hostile towards her or she discovers they’ve been deceiving her for years. Do people like this really exist? I spent most of the book waiting (vainly, it turned out) for Mim to grow a pair. Frankly, she’s so unbelievably tolerant and nice that I ended up just wanting to punch her.

Worst of all is Cyn, the token ‘large and loud’ university friend. Duigan describes the unfortunate Cyn in perpetually negative language, both in terms of her physicality (‘lumpy’) and her personality (she’s like a ‘sergeant major,’ with ‘dogged, hectoring earnestness’ and a ‘conviction of superiority’). Cyn isn’t supposed to be a ‘bad’ character—Days Like These, I think, is intended to reflect real people and the situations they so often find themselves in, with their blurred edges and shades of grey and lack of right answers—but Duigan’s uncompromising portrayal garners no sympathy, and it’s difficult to care about her on any level—she’s a tiresome presence throughout the book.

Lou, who narrates the book, is the best-drawn character; not as extreme as her friends, she rings more true, and her struggle to maintain her moral compass feels believable. But I never really warmed to her or felt that invested in her character; ultimately, Lou’s path is a predictable one.

What also didn’t work for me was the dialogue, which I found manifestly unconvincing. I know the characters are all supposed to be well-educated members of the Intelligentsia, but they’re also old friends; their interactions felt too stylised and formal to be authentic. ‘Brandy and a hot cup of tea might be efficacious, Mim,’ someone suggests when Lou gets home after a traumatic night out, and Cyn tells Lou over tea and cake that ‘you should really think about shedding your resolutely vacant veneer.’ Ah, old friends…

Still, I can’t deny that I wanted to keep reading—there’s something compelling about the familiar but frustrating problems our relationships with others tend to throw in our paths, and Duigan’s occasionally clunky dialogue and overdone characters don’t diminish the poignancy of her themes. Lou’s return to London is bittersweet; amid the inevitable tensions that arise when old friends negotiate new circumstances, they all remain ‘inextricably linked by the spiderweb of memory.’

It’s this enduring connection between people, despite differences that may never be reconciled, that Duigan evokes so well. Looking around the dinner table in Mim’s house just days after leaving New York, Lou realises that ‘in the interplay of these people, Mim and Jack and Cyn and me, I saw invisible connections, linking our identities in an intricate scaffolding.’

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