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The embers of love and revolt.

August 21, 2013

The US cover of Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, shows a young woman with her mouth taped shut. It’s a striking image, perhaps indicative of the revolutionary politics the book’s rather passive protagonist finds herself caught up in. But while the woman on the cover might be silenced, the literary world hasn’t stopped gushing about Kushner’s book since its release earlier this year, from revered critic James Woods to novelist Jonathan Franzen, who provided an appropriately enthusiastic cover quotation for the Australian edition of the novel.

The Flamethrowers is a visceral journey through 1970s New York and Italy, a tale of art, revolutionary politics, and high-speed motorcycle racing; it’s also a panoramic snapshot of America at a particular time and a kind of coming-of-age story. But despite its brilliantly evoked settings and timeless themes—and Kushner’s obvious writing talent—the overall effect is curiously flat.

At the novel’s centre is 23-year-old Reno (a nickname that refers to where she’s from, in ‘the real West’, a place of ‘ranchers. Drifters. Divorcées.’) a 23-year-old aspiring artist and motorcycle enthusiast, who moves to New York from Nevada with little more than her camera and a sense of possibility. New York is alive with avant-garde artists and anarchist groups; Reno soon begins a relationship with Sandro Valera, an artist 14 years her senior and a semi-estranged member of the wealthy Valera family, who own a tire and motorcycle empire back in Sandro’s home country of Italy. Sandro is openly disparaging of his family’s enterprise and what it represents: ‘My father and his cronies conspired to change the face of Italy’, he declares ‘They wrecked the place and made piles of money’. In a fitting rejection of his heritage, Sandro has made a name for himself crafting minimalist steel cubes and displaying them in empty rooms.

As Sandro’s other half, Reno finds herself socialising with New York’s artistic elite, who seem bowed beneath the combined weight of their own pretension and narcissism. Kushner astutely captures the art crowd, and, despite the faint undercurrent of satire, she never breaches the border between sharp observation and mockery. There’s a clever, but overly long, scene at a loft dinner party where semi-industrial objects such as old lightbulbs and telephones are displayed on long tables, Reno learns about an anarchist group called the Motherfuckers and guests endure a lengthy taped monologue by the host about the context of nudity and the semantics of homebuying.

But as Reno’s time in New York stretches ever onwards, there’s an increasing lethargy cloaking the story, and it’s only exacerbated by Reno’s passivity: things happen to her and rarely seem to have much effect. I think this is deliberate, and part of Kushner’s intent to capture the political, historical, and cultural zeitgeist of 1970s New York. The Flamethrowers is more a novel of time and place than a character study, and Kushner’s detailed set-pieces—from Reno’s blazing dash across the Bonneville Salt Flats in a land-speed trial to her time in a squat in Rome with a group of revolutionaries she barely knows—are richly evoked.

But while The Flamethrowers is artfully composed and captures a fascinating period of recent history, it’s just not as compelling as it should be; there’s an element of self-consciousness at play here that interferes with the reader’s ability to really engage with the narrative. The novel seems preoccupied with the concept of reality versus artifice (Reno poignantly notes that ‘certain acts, even as they are real, are also merely gestures’); everyone in the novel is performing a part, to a degree, and while this is certainly effective, it soon becomes deadening and tiresome—there’s a sense that all of this meandering between bars and parties and galleries isn’t actually going anywhere.

This isn’t helped by occasional chapters that take us out of Reno’s world to tell us the story of Sandro’s father and his journey from lustful schoolboy to motorcycle mogul, or to briefly describe a series of actions undertaken by the Motherfuckers in their heydey, which include bank robbing, Cadillac smashing, and murder. These digressions from the main narrative might augment the historical and ideological context of Kushner’s tale, but they also feel too displaced and fragmented; they read more as interruptions than anything else.

Thankfully, there’s a change of pace about two-thirds in. Reno wants to combine her love of art and motorcycle riding, since ‘the two things I loved were drawing and speed’. When she breaks the female land-speed record, she’s given an opportunity to visit Italy and do a photoshoot and publicity tour with the Valera racing team, a trip that Sandro consider a ‘ridiculous prospect’. Nonetheless, he eventually capitulates and the action shifts across the Atlantic. Reno endures 10 days at the Valera family’s picture-perfect Lake Como home with Sandro’s openly hostile mother, and, eventually, his self-assured cousin, Talia. It’s here that Kushner’s tale finally becomes more alive, both in her excruciating depiction of Reno’s immediate sense that she doesn’t belong and her subsequent involvement in a violent political demonstration in Rome.

The Flamethrowers might not scale the full heights of its ambitions, but there’s still plenty to admire here; Kushner is a skilled writer and intelligent observer. Reno’s passivity, frustrating though it is, also offers a thoughtful perspective on the blurred lines between life and art. ‘There was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York that felt pure’, Reno says. ‘Ronnie said that certain women were best viewed from the window of a speeding car, the exaggeration of their makeup and their tight clothes. But maybe women were meant to speed past, just a blur. Flash, and then gone. It was only a motorcycle but it felt like a mode of being.’

Sex, politics, and coach travel.

July 21, 2013

Every so often—OK, rarely, but it happens—you come across a book that seems to encapsulate your very understanding of the world, a book that makes you pause every few pages, every few lines, in order to quietly marvel at its prose and ideas and perfect emotional clarity.

Several months ago, I found Tim Parks’s Europa, short-listed for the 1997 Booker Prize, at the wonderful Atavist Books in Brisbane. This second-hand bookshop is tiny, but its selection belies its tardis-like exterior. I finally picked up Europa last week, feeling ever-so-slightly guilty because it’s not a new release (this is what happens to your reading habits when you work in a bookshop) but justifying my decision on the basis of its length: just over 200 pages. As it turned out, it took me a few days to read; much as I wanted to tear through Parks’s compelling stream-of-consciousness narrative, the rush of thoughts and feelings and anxieties that charge along every page demanded my time and concentration—there was too much going on at once and I didn’t want to miss a moment.

Parks’s narrator, Jerry, is a 45-year-old language teacher at an Italian university; he’s also beset by neuroses and self-loathing, the special kind brought on by a doomed love affair with a French colleague. When we meet Jerry, he’s trapped on a coach, and there he remains—agonising, philosophising, mentally self-flagellating, and occasionally flirting with the pretty Italian student sitting nearby—for much of the book’s duration.

But we’re not entirely cut off from the outside world; on the contrary, what makes Europa so powerful and so clever is Parks’s delicate tightrope act between external and internal experience. Jerry’s inner monologue doesn’t just expose us to his anguished internal conflicts, but the bland torture of a coach road trip, with its overpriced service station stops, awkward seating arrangements, poor audio-visual entertainment choices, and ‘nauseating smell of plastics and synthetic upholstery’.

The novel also has an interesting social and political dimension. Jerry, a handful of his colleagues and a few students are on their way to petition the European Parliament about changes to their working conditions. It’s not something Jerry really gives a toss about—he only signed up because he knew his ex-lover would be going, too—and he’s not the only one there under false pretences. ‘When we arrived at the University long ago’, he reflects, ‘each one of us signed a contract in which we accepted that the maximum duration of our job would be five years, because of course we imagined that we would use this time to become something else—a writer, a painter, a mother, a professor, an entrepreneur—but that by the end of those five years, our various private projects having failed, or not having satisfied us as we expected, we couldn’t leave, we could not give up our empty jobs’. There’s no real united front on Jerry’s coach, just as the European Union itself, for all its ‘holier than thou’ politics and aspirations of solidarity and harmony, is as hypocritical and self-serving as any man. Jerry’s recognition of this—his loss of faith and self-belief—also alludes more widely to the emptiness of the modern world, like the coach upholstery’s ‘synthetic red velvet that looks so plush, that promises such luxury, invites such complacence, the way all that is modern promises such luxury, invites such complacence, such sitting back in this world of paved roads and metalled directions, gleaming surfaces, reclinable seats, this world where everything is ready for us, technically, to be happy’.

If there’s one person who isn’t happy, it’s Jerry. He’s tried to fool himself into believing that he chose to take this trip simply to show ‘her’ (she’s not named until the book’s final sentence) that he’s moved on from their relationship, but ‘the very instant I took this decision was also the instant I recognized and recognized that I had always recognized that coming on this trip was one of those mistakes I was made to make’. Jerry’s become the man he never thought he’d be, and it ‘strikes home to me how much I had lost: my role as a father and husband, the obviousness of my old life, the simplicity of being somebody’s husband, somebody’s father, the readiness of an explanation when required, being able to say, This is who I am and what I do’.

Parks has a droll humour that gives the bleakness at the novel’s heart a savagely witty edge; Europa is a deftly balanced tragicomedy. For all his self-obsession, Jerry is observant, both of his fellow man and his environment (the novel’s supporting cast is particularly well realised, from the shambolic Vikram Griffiths, the cravat-wearing, whisky-drinking trip organiser whose shambolic manner belies his political cunning, to she, who stalks the passages of Jerry’s memory even as she sits across the aisle from him on the coach engrossed in Dead Poet’s Society). Standing in a floodlit square outside a cathedral in Strasbourg, Jerry reflects that Europe’s grand monuments have been ‘emptied of their potency precisely by the zeal with which we have focused on them, cared for them, illuminated them, absorbed them into the on-off neon of our intermittent modern night, our world of time-switches and default settings and above all discrete units of measure’. For all its philosophising and references to the classics and the history of Western thought, Europa is also very much grounded in a contemporary world we can recognise, among people we can recognise; and once the convoy arrives in Strasbourg to present their case, the narrative picks up pace and hurdles towards a shocking and satisfying conclusion.

Europa is a mesmerising study of desire, artifice and human nature that manages to be both cynical and beautiful: there’s something universal about Jerry’s angst-ridden journey, which is at once painful, resonant and darkly amusing. Despite its inherent pessimism, Parks’s tale is so rich in ideas and clarity of thought that reading it might even partially restore your faith in humanity.

Is it local?

June 27, 2013

Anyone familiar with the offbeat sketch show Portlandia, set in Portland, Oregon, has a pretty good idea of what it’s like: a city where people ride bikes and unicycles, eat vegan cupcakes, own lots of things with birds on them, and buy books like Vaginas: An Owners Manual from the Women & Women First feminist bookshop. Basically, it’s Hipstertown, and the sort of place young people go to ‘retire’.

The same year Portlandia had its television debut, American novelist Keith Scribner released his third book, The Oregon Experiment. Scribner’s depiction of small-town Oregon might not be as over-the-top satirical as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s comedy, but it certainly reinforces the cultural tropes we’ve come to associate with this part of the world. It’s a fascinating and elegantly written portrayal of secessionism, social conviction, and the personal betrayals and conflicts it can cause, and—surprisingly—the intense power of scent.

New Yorkers Scanlon and Naomi Pratt relocate to the small town of Douglas, Oregon, when Scanlon—an academic whose area of expertise is mass movements and domestic radicalism—lands a job at the local university. Although clearly good at what he does, Scanlon’s not had much luck in the fickle world of academia; he’s hoping that the Pacific Northwest, with its history of secessionist movements, will offer him the perfect field research opportunity. He’s intent on improving his standing by writing a book that will ultimately win him a teaching job at a more prestigious university back East.

Naomi’s story is more complex. A former fragrance designer, her sense of smell—a sense that defined her experience of the world—inexplicably disappeared following a minor car accident 12 years ago. Scanlon’s attempts to describe the smells she can no longer detect has long been part of his role as her rescuer—a role Naomi has always been happy for him to assume. But as soon as the couple drive into Douglas, the heavily pregnant Naomi’s smell suddenly returns—and with it a shift in the dynamics of her relationship with Scanlon.

Scanlon settles quickly into Douglas life, becoming involved in the local Pacific Northwest Secessionist Movement (PNSM) and befriending one of its leading members, earthy café owner Sequoia Green. Sequoia is immediately convinced that someone like Scanlon could be the key to the PNSM’s success, although Scanlon’s advice at the first meeting he attends is to change their name, since ‘PNSM, I don’t know, it sounds like a regional association of podiatrists’. Guiltily attracted to Sequoia, who is ‘built like a tree: sturdy, lush, limby’, Scanlon also finds himself deeply intrigued by Clay, a young anarchist, believing him to be the perfect research subject. But Clay has a troubled past, and although he openly dislikes Scanlon, he quickly becomes infatuated with Naomi.

Despite being lost in the thrall of her returned nose and the birth of her child, Naomi remains scathing of Douglas—it’s the kind of place where people pay using ‘Douglas dollars’ and summer fairs are full of ‘booths selling black walnut cutting boards, redwood-burl yoga stands and gun racks’ and artists sculpting beavers out of wet sand. While Naomi clings to the belief that their new home is only temporary, she and Scanlon’s growing involvement with Sequoia and Clay weaves an increasingly tangled web of desires, beliefs, and loyalties.

While the story itself is engrossing, with its gradually tightening knots of the personal and political, Scribner’s writing is what makes The Oregon Experiment such a standout novel. He’s intent on conveying his characters’ sensory experiences, from Naomi’s devastating realisation, when her nose returns, that she doesn’t like Scanlon’s smell (‘his scalp and skin were in the dusty family: canvas stored in the basement, pages of a book pulled from a garage-sale box, a stranger’s wool sweater’) to Scanlon’s description of Sequoia’s ‘honey-dripping’ tofu pancakes (‘sort of malty. Like bark, or potting soil’) and the distinct surrounds of Oregon itself, with its lush forests, thick morning fogs, and endless rain. Scribner’s vivid rendering of his characters’ inner and outer worlds is sometimes uncomfortably intimate, drawing us deep into their hearts and minds.

Scribner undercuts the novel’s drama with sardonic wit (particularly memorable is a visit from Scanlon’s father Geoff, a former lawyer in the throes of a ‘sustained midlife crisis’ who feels compelled to share intimate details of his life in a nudist RV camp with his revolted son), and a provocative exploration of radical politics and our often skewed characterisation of its practitioners. Yes, The Oregon Experiment is full of hippies and anarchists—the stereotypes we think we know, the novelised versions of the kooks we love to snicker at on Portlandia. But appearances aren’t everything, and belief isn’t truth. Scribner’s richly detailed narrative world of sensory perception and social activism is an insightful rendering of the rewards and limitations of trying to turn idealism into reality.

Getting heavy.

May 21, 2013

No matter what percentage of mental energy you devote to thinking about food—buying it, cooking it, or eating it—the consequences of what our consumption does to our bodies is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. While we’re probably more used to seeing articles bemoaning the size of our waistlines or calling for fat acceptance, obesity has finally made the leap from fact to fiction. It seems fitting that Lionel Shriver (the woman who novelised another topical issue, school shootings, in her hugely successful 2003 breakthrough We Need to Talk About Kevin) is one of the writers to facilitate that leap. The results, as you might expect, are both provocative and compelling.

Forget any Orwellian associations conjured by the title of Shriver’s latest novel—Big Brother literally refers to the immense personage of Edison Appaloosa, jazz pianist and older brother of the book’s narrator, Pandora, an unassuming woman who’s made her fortune creating custom-made talking dolls. Pandora’s life in the Midwest (which, coincidentally, is home to some of America’s largest residents) is interrupted by an impromptu visit from Edison, whom she hasn’t seen in four years—and four years ago, Edison was hundreds of pounds lighter. When Pandora goes to pick him up from the airport and he comes off the plane in a wheelchair (‘that was just the airline being impatient. Don’t walk fast as I used to.’), she literally doesn’t recognise him.

While Edison talks long and loud about how busy he is back in New York (‘I was just glad a gap in my schedule made it possible to fit in a visit’), he seems intent on taking a sabbatical, although Pandora and her husband suspect there’s more to the story. It appears that Edison has long overstayed his welcome on a friend’s couch back East; a more likely reason for his trip to Iowa is that he has nowhere else to go. He’s also strangely resistant to going anywhere near the piano, despite the fact that he’s supposed to be on tour in just a few short weeks. And what of his size? Pandora has always looked up to her brother; now, his girth has caused his spine to compact three inches, and she can barely bring herself to look Edison in the eye.

As the two months of Edison’s stay pass—filled with cheese-laden lasagnes, gallons of coffee creamer, gargantuan pancake breakfasts, and a pantry that can never be replenished quickly enough—Pandora’s marriage comes under increasing strain. Her husband, Fletcher, an uptight furniture maker who rises at five each morning (even though, as Pandora points out, he really doesn’t need to—he’s self-employed furniture maker who works in the basement) and is obsessed with eating healthily and keeping trim, resents Edison’s presence in more ways than one. Fletcher doesn’t just not get on with Edison; he’s offended and revolted by his brother-in-law’s immense size and lack of control around food.

Eventually, when the true nature of Edison’s situation is revealed and it’s clear that he has nothing of consequence to return to in New York, Pandora must make a decision between the family she chose—her husband and Fletcher’s two children—and the family she’s tied to by blood. She realises that if she doesn’t stage some kind of intervention, Edison will eat himself to death in a ‘slow motion suicide-by-pie’. What follows is a horribly captivating account of the siblings’ year-long diet (Pandora is intent on dropping a few pounds herself) and its attendant mental and physical highs and lows. Rather paradoxically, it’s a process that’s both incredibly methodical—counting, weighing, measuring—and unpredictable, emotions, and motivations fluctuating alongside the dreaded number on the scales.

For the first several months, the pair subsist on a liquid-only diet of unfulfilling diet shakes, and it’s not long before the agony of not eating is replaced by an almost religious fervour, a crazed sense that eating is perhaps not necessary after all. It’s a depressing reminder that in our increasingly extreme and misguided attitudes towards food—from ‘the market for airline seatbelt extenders’ to ‘the prestige designation of size-zero jeans’—‘we no longer knew how to eat’. ‘You couldn’t help but wonder what earthly good was a microprocessor, a space telescope, or a particle accelerator’, Pandora reflects, ‘when we had mislaid the most animal of masteries’.

Big Brother is both a complex social commentary and an interesting family drama—not an easy balancing act to pull off, but Shriver’s sharp prose and rounded characters (pun not intended) make it an engrossing and insightful read. Although it’s a very human story, questioning the assumptions we make about people based on their size, and the limits (or lack thereof) of familial obligations, it’s situated in a particularly topical context. Everyone’s obsessed with food these days, often unintentionally; indeed, the book begins with Pandora’s observation that even though ‘for something I do every day, I can’t remember many meals in detail’, she’s spent ‘less time thinking about my husband than thinking about lunch’. Food is consuming, whether or not you’re someone of Edison’s size.

It’s also an issue particularly close to Shriver’s heart: she lost her older brother to obesity-related complications in 2009, and Big Brother is a kind of fictional exploration of what she might have tried to do for her sibling if she’d had the chance. While it’s clearly an intensely personal novel, it also raises many pertinent questions about how we live now, and the damage we do to our hearts—not simply in the medical sense—when we seek to sate our hunger.

The bedside table roll call.

April 20, 2013

I’ve not been doing as much reading as I’d like lately, mostly because my thesis is due in two months and I’m trying to cut 10,000 words and organise my (extremely, woefully disorganised) references, both of which are largely horrific experiences. After three and a half years of no PhD-related crises, breakdowns or emotional implosions, I’m now having one at least once a fortnight. It’s great. Also, I seem to have three jobs at the moment. How did this happen?

Anyway, I have been doing some reading, and I figured I’d post a little round-up of what’s ended up on my bedside table over the past month: the good, the better, and the terrible and terribly embarrassing.

Most recently, I’ve been reading talented Australian writer Georgia Blain‘s newest book, The Secret Lives of Men, which is a wonderfully compelling collection of short stories about people’s desires, failures, and conflicts. Blain has a real talent for exploring what goes on beneath the veneer of ordinary lives; her fiction can make you rearrange the mental fragments of your own past choices and actions to form new shapes and perspectives. In ‘Big Dreams’, a struggling novelist encounters a bestselling author of terribly tacky gift books at a Writers’ Society event and is oddly torn between disgust and desire; in ‘The Other Side of the River’, a woman makes a choice she knows is wrong, yielding to the temptation of sure disaster, and reflects on the consequences with her daughter 10 years later. The title might refer to men (and, indeed, men are significant in every story, even if their characters often seem to hover at the narrative edges), but the stories are really compelling explorations of the tensions underlying men’s interactions with women, and the subtle but omnipresent currents of longing, lust, and uncertainty that ebb beneath our everyday exchanges and encounters. I can honestly say that this is the first short story collection I’ve read consistently, like a novel (i.e. I haven’t read a story, put the book down, and then not picked it up again for another seven months), for as long as I can remember.

Before that, I read Paula McLain‘s The Paris Wife. It’s probably not something I would have picked up had someone in my book club offered to lend it to me; since she has excellent taste in books, I decided to embrace change and give it a go. I’m really glad I did.

The Paris Wife is the story of Ernest Hemingway‘s first wife, Hadley Richardson. I’ve only read one Hemingway novel (under duress as an undergraduate), which I kind of liked, but I’ve never really had a great urge to pick up any more of his books. Although The Paris Wife is obviously fiction, told from Hadley’s perspective, it offers some compelling insights into the kind of man Hemingway was and the fierce convictions that drove his writing. Of course, it’s also a fascinating (and rather sad) exploration of several years in Hadley’s life. She was about seven years older than Hemingway and not a writer or artist herself, and McLain paints her as a somewhat timid and sensible figure, although not without passion and a fondness for knocking back a few drinks. Ultimately, however, she’s perhaps not the kind of person you’d imagine would have been married to Hemingway, particularly not when he was busy hobnobbing with people like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound in the hotbed of intellectual creativity that was 1920s Paris. Hadley’s voice offers an interesting counterpoint to this very bohemian and mythologised setting. While I’ve no doubt that McLain had to use a certain amount of poetic license when she wrote the book, it’s a cleverly crafted piece of fictionalised literary history and an honest portrait of a failed relationship.

Last and definitely least, I indulged my urge for trashy escapism and picked up Jellybird by Lezanne Clannachan, an (alleged) thriller with more holes (plot-wise, logic-wise and interest-wise) than a piece of Belgian lace.

Jessica’s life is vomitously perfect on paper: she’s got a dream job as a jewellery designer and an attentive husband; we’re also treated to several reminders of how skinny Jessica is (sometimes, she just forgets to eat!). When she meets Libby, a fan of her unusual jewellery pieces, she thinks she’s found the kind of close female friendship she’s never experienced before. Unfortunately, Libby acts like she’s straight out of Single White Female (only far less interesting and without the rad 90s hair), but Jessica doesn’t seem to realise this (perhaps she never saw that movie). Only, she kind of does realise it, but continues to be friends with Libby and tell her things that she knows she shouldn’t, because this is a thriller and there’s an OMG YOU TOTES NEVER SAW IT COMING plot twist at stake. It also quickly becomes obvious that Jessica is (conveniently) slightly impaired when it comes to putting two and two together. I don’t want to give anything away (because I’m selling this book so hard right now I know you’re all going to rush out and buy a copy when you finish reading this), but apparently, when the last time you see someone they’re COVERED IN BLOOD, that doesn’t start to seem weird or suspicious until approximately SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER, when you find some old notebook that reminds you of strange and unresolved events from your past. Anyway, there are buried secrets, dark memories, messed up family histories, and all kinds of other things that you’ve never encountered in a thriller before (oh wait…), and despite my bitching I did finish the book, 1. because I’m the kind of retentive person who can’t not finish a novel even if I don’t like it, and 2. because I did kind of want to know what happened. So I guess it wasn’t all bad.

The good news is that my pile of Books to Read continues to grow, and in 10 weeks, when I finally send my thesis off into the ether, I might actually be able to read a few and write a proper review.

Sunshine and unhappiness.

March 27, 2013

Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction unearths the compelling in the everyday: she holds romantic and familial relationships up to the light of psychological scrutiny, examining the complications and repercussions of our connections with loved ones in clear and graceful prose.

O’Farrell’s last couple of novels, The Hand that First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, have traversed great chunks of 20th century history, from England’s old Edwardian empire to contemporary London. Her latest book, Instructions for a Heatwave, takes us back in time once more, although with much more concentrated focus: just three days during the sweltering English summer of 1976 (before you laugh at the words ‘English summer’ and ‘sweltering’ appearing in the same sentence, it’s true—the country was subject to record temperatures and a severe drought that year). Despite the brevity of the novel’s timeframe, it encapsulates the long and messy history of a family untethered by a mysterious disappearance.

It’s a stiflingly hot and dry morning in July 1976 when elderly Robert Riordan, husband, father and grandfather, walks out to buy the paper and doesn’t come back. His rather formidable Irish wife, Gretta, marshals her resources, phoning the police and summoning her three grown children: Michael Francis, a downtrodden history teacher trying to cope with his failing marriage; Monica, the unhappy middle child who refuses to acknowledge or accept her mistakes; and Aiofe, the troubled youngest of the three, whose bohemian existence as a photographer’s assistant in New York is overshadowed by a secret she won’t admit to anyone.

The stage is set for a fiery domestic drama: as the three siblings converge on the family home, each bringing their own long-fermented brew of prejudices and suspicions, recriminations and sour truths soon emerge. While the children quickly begin to doubt their mother’s adamant claim that she has no idea where Robert has gone, the crisis of his vanishing soon converges with longstanding family feuds and personal problems: after a perceived betrayal three years ago, Monica still refuses to speak to her sister; Michael Francis sifts through the mental wreckage of his relationship with his wife; Aiofe leaves her lover in New York in the wake of a potentially ruinous miscommunication.

Instructions for a Heatwave is driven by its characters—Robert’s disappearance is simply the pin in the family hand grenade of pent-up emotions. Ultimately, this is one of the novel’s (admittedly minor) weaknesses: Robert is such a peripheral figure, so overshadowed by the drama consuming his wife and children, that his disappearance begins to feel suspiciously like a plot device.

But O’Farrell’s other characters compensate for Robert’s weak presence. At the centre of the Riordans is Gretta, an overbearing mother figure with a penchant for ‘tent-size, flower-splotched frocks’ and hoarding useless household goods. She’s at once unassailably unique and painfully familiar—many families, no doubt, have had a Gretta at some stage in their lineage. There’s an element of caricature here, but it works; and because we come to know Gretta through her children—their decades of memories, projections, and frustrations—the novel’s central mystery, and its eventual resolution, is all the more intriguing and surprising.

If Gretta isn’t entirely sympathetic, neither are her offspring. Monica is perhaps the book’s most difficult character: deeply unhappy but unable to admit it, she is also the only one who knows how to best handle Gretta, ‘responding immediately and precisely to every mood, every demand’ her mother makes ‘like a sort of external heart valve’. Michael Francis and Aiofe might be easier figures to warm to, but they’re equally as damaged by some of the choices they’ve made and regretted. The dynamic between the three is particularly well rendered—O’Farrell brilliantly captures how readily we can revert to our childhood selves when we return home. Monica is once again the prim and sanctimonious favourite child; Aiofe flounces out of rooms and looks ‘for all the world like the sullen-faced teenager she once was’; Michael Francis is the ineffectual peacemaker.

In the background throughout all of this human drama is the weather: an oppressive, relentless heat that seems to make everyone behave slightly more strangely than usual. O’Farrell was inspired by her memories of the 1976 heatwave—it was, she reflects in the book’s afterword, the summer that ‘really did go on and on’, even causing the government  to appoint a Minister for Drought. But the novel progresses, it feels less as though the weather is causing the Riordans’ internal ructions than simply accelerating it; theirs was an implosion waiting to happen, and the unusual strength of England’s sun was just the nudge it needed.

It’s unfortunate that the book’s ending is something of a letdown—the resolution feels too neat and sudden, and jars with the perfectly pitched messy realism of all that precedes it. But Instructions for a Heatwave is still an accomplished exploration of family dynamics, and of how our relationships with parents and siblings can so strongly shape our lives, even without our conscious knowledge. Once again, O’Farrell’s demonstrates her flair at skimming the surface from ordinary lives to reveal the mysteries beneath.

Lost in the forest.

March 3, 2013

Many women are familiar with the search for the perfect dress; but there’s no dress quite like the one Rose Lovell has made for her in award-winning Australian author Karen Foxlee’s second novel, The Midnight Dress. It’s a dark and enchanting coming-of-age story with a subtle fable-like feel and a lingering undertone of mystery.

Fifteen-year-old Rose and her alcoholic father are drifters, so when they arrive in Leonora, a small North Queensland sugarcane town, Rose isn’t expecting to stay long. Thanks to her father’s itinerant ways, Rose is cynical beyond her years, and generally expects disappointment. But when she enrols in the local high school, she’s powerless to resist the infectious friendliness of Pearl Kelly, who is at once pretty, popular, and genuinely kind.

Pearl convinces Rose that she must take part in the town’s annual Harvest Parade, an event for which all the local girls spend months searching for the perfect dress. For Rose, who is committed to wearing entirely black and furiously pinning down her unruly red curls, the very idea of the Harvest Parade is beyond ridiculous—’I’m not wearing any crummy dress’, she tells Pearl. But things begin to change—slowly, ineffably—when Pearl suggests that Rose visit Edie Baker, an old seamstress living in a ramshackle house at the foot of the town’s imposing forested mountain. There’s something oddly beguiling about Edie and her rooms full of moulding fabric bolts and moth-eaten dresses; Rose begins visiting every week, helping Edie make her a midnight blue dress and listening to the old woman’s stories of love and mystery.

The book is cleverly split into two timeframes: at the novel’s start, we learn of the disappearance of a girl in a midnight dress on the eve of the town’s Harvest Parade; from there, we move ever so slightly back in time to meet Rose when she arrives in town. Foxlee’s past and future narratives gradually catch up to one another—at the start of each chapter, we’re given another instalment in the search for the missing girl; in the meantime, the novel’s central storyline progresses towards the Harvest Parade, creating a deepening sense of intrigue and foreboding.

Despite its gothic overtones, there’s a wry humour to Foxlee’s work that brings her characters to vivid life; as in her 2008 debut, The Anatomy of Wings, she’s adept at capturing the difficulties and frustrations of adolescence with honesty and wit. Taciturn Rose, who never expected to make a friend in her temporary new home, is bewildered by Pearl’s unerring effervescence–she never stops talking, her thoughts and desires spilling forth in stark contrast to Rose’s tight-lipped emotional caution. ‘I’d love to be marooned and just drink coconut milk and wear a grass skirt’, Pearl gushes. ‘I can’t wait to travel. I’m going to go away as soon as school is over. I’m going to Russia, first stop, that’s where my father came from. No kidding. I never met him. Not yet. I’m the result of a brief love affair. My father, he’ll recognise me straight away. We’ll be in this crowded railway station. He’ll put out his arms to me. He’ll smell like snow and pine cones.’

Still, there is a profound sadness at the novel’s core: each central character experiences a kind of loss or mourning, from Rose’s fading memories of her mother, and deep, unexpressed need for a home, to Pearl’s search for her father (knowing that her father’s surname was Orlov, she intends to write to every single Orlov in the Russian phone book in an attempt to locate the correct one). Edie, too, who shares the story of her parents’ tragic marriage with Rose, is viewed with suspicion by many of the locals for her isolated existence; she is a permanent outsider, though it’s a role she ultimately seems to embrace.

The implications of all this gradually become sharper as the mystery unfolds—loss is at the novel’s core, but as we come to understand the story of the girl in the midnight dress, it appears that not all forms of loss are entirely tragic; some are almost necessary, an ultimate means of escape for those who never fit in and perhaps were never intended to.

The Midnight Dress, much like The Anatomy of Wings, is another tale of what lies beneath the surface of apparently ordinary small town lives, often quietly haunted by secrets and dreams that they would never dare express. Foxlee evocatively conveys Leonora’s provincial dullness (‘isn’t it tres boring here?’ Pearl says despairingly to Rose as they wander down Main Street, in which ‘there’s nothing, a few parked cars, four shops, a handful of pubs’), while at the same time creating a beguiling mythical atmosphere. With its steamy heat and relentless rain, and the ‘mysterious green pelt’ and ‘mossy groves and caves and hidden things’ of the imposing mountain that overlooks it, Leonora is as much a place of mystery and magic as any enchanted forest from a childhood book of fairy tales.

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