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Literary losses.

January 11, 2012

Kirsten Tranter has the kind of literary pedigree that can be both a blessing and a curse: as the daughter of poet John Tranter and literary agent Lyn Tranter, her first novel, 2009’s The Legacy, was heralded with the sort of breathless anticipation normally saved for established writers. But Tranter is a talented novelist in her own right, and The Legacy—a modern reworking of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady—was an assured literary thriller.

Tranter’s latest offering, A Common Lossis another compelling blend of contemporary human drama and deft allusion to the classics, but it doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its plot. Despite its poetic prose and intriguing set-up, A Common Loss is let down by cold characters and a rather pallid ending.

After the sudden death of their old college friend Dylan, a group of thirty-something friends—Elliott, Brian, Tallis, and Cameron—decide to go ahead with their annual get-together in Las Vegas. The trip seems doomed from the start—no one can agree on a date, Brian insists on bringing his new girlfriend, and Elliott wonders if there’s much left to keep the group together after ten years and the death of its unspoken leader: without Dylan, their diminished group of four ‘just didn’t make sense in the same way.’

But there’s more awaiting them in Vegas that doesn’t make sense. Dylan, it seems, was not the man they thought, and the strange legacy of his passing forces each member of the group to confront secrets that they’ve kept hidden for years; secrets that allow Dylan to exert a kind of power over them even in death.

It may sound like a familiar conceit—old friends unearthing the proverbial skeletons in the cupboard—but Tranter’s clever use of literary reference lends poignancy to a rather overused dramatic situation. Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam plays a particularly significant part (for Elliott, it signifies a mistake from his college days that returns to haunt him). Tennyson’s depiction of grief over the death of a friend contrasts sharply with Elliott’s struggle to reconcile his feelings about Dylan, and the shifting dynamics of his relationship with Brian, Cameron, and Tallis.

At the centre of the novel is the complex question of loss: not just the loss of a person, but of a friendship that suddenly tarnishes in light of new revelations. Las Vegas, with its veneer of tacky glitz, is the perfect setting for Tranter’s thoughtful exploration of truth and authenticity in relationships: it’s an obvious, but beautifully evoked, metaphor for what lies beneath the polished exterior of each man’s life, and of the rather sinister power relations that undercut their friendship with one another. On a monorail that runs parallel to the Strip, Elliott observes that ‘there was something arresting, almost shocking, about the sudden falling away of glitz and substance in that small distance between the front of the massive hotels, the face they showed to the Strip, and the back…the drop from prosperity to desperation and emptiness was dizzying.’

Although Elliott is a convincing narrator—and certainly the most empathetic figure in a book populated by self-interested posers—he’s also a curiously distant one, much like Julia in The LegacyTranter’s characters aren’t caricatures, but her narration always feel somewhat cold, as though she wants to keep you at arm’s length; the inevitable consequence of this is that you don’t especially care what happens to anyone. Brian, Cameron, and Tallis are all flawed, and each struggles to keep their mask of artifice in place, even when confronted by the sins of their past; but Tranter’s portrayal of them, although certainly convincing, doesn’t leave any room for empathy. The book’s ending, while not exactly disappointing, feels oddly anti-climactic—although perhaps it’s simply realistic rather than dramatic.

What Tranter does most effectively is build the novel’s tense and melancholy atmosphere. A faint but creeping sense of foreboding pulses constantly beneath the narrative as Elliott and his companions face truths they would have preferred to keep forever hidden from themselves and each other. Small details are significant, and elegantly conveyed: a shirt discarded over the back of a chair still holds the shape of Elliott’s arms, and has ‘a deflated, empty look about it, like a dent in a mattress that shows the imprint of a body, or rumpled sheets that tell you exactly the gesture a person used when they pushed them out of the way.’

This sense of loss and emptiness pervades the book, casting harsh light on a certain type of friendship. As in The Secret History (a far superior book), the group at the centre of this narrative end up bound together by something they would all rather forget. The loss of the title is perhaps not, in the end, Dylan, but the authenticity of his friendship, and the true nature of the bonds that have kept his group together after so many years, and possibly for many more. ‘I realised with a nauseating lurch that this was only the beginning,’ writes Elliott when Dylan’s strange legacy is revealed. ‘It would be Dylan’s role, his words and gestures and expressions, that I would be forced to re-evaluate the most seriously, and in relation to all of us, not just myself.’ 

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