There’s a smile—if not an outright belly laugh—on every page of this delicious comic novel (winner of Britain’s 2001 Orange Prize), the fifth from the Australian author (Albion’s Story, 1994, etc.).
The setting is the amiable little backwater of Karakarook in New South Wales, to which engineer Douglas Cheeseman is sent, to supervise the dismantling of the town’s moribund landmark, the Bent Bridge. At the same time, Harley Savage, an irreversibly plain middle-aged woman who has left three husbands and as many sons behind her, arrives in Karakarook to help its Heritage Committee build a museum celebrating indigenous arts and crafts (Harley being a sometime curator, and an expert quilter). The tenuous, ineffably awkward relationship between Harley and Douglas is played out within a richly funny context of local folks and their doings, beginning when the two collide on the street, after which she inadvertently rescues him from an angry cow, their first “date” (for tea) leaves both with food poisoning, and they’re forced to decision point when the good women of the Heritage Committee form a “blockade” against bulldozers aimed at the Bent Bridge. Meanwhile, the town banker’s beautiful wife Felicity Porcelline finds herself helplessly attracted to Karakarook’s Chinese butcher (and amateur photographer) Alfred Chang—with predictably disastrous seriocomic consequences. Grenville moves among their separate (and conjoined) stories with easy skill. The unfailingly delightful incidents dramatize the demolition of each major character’s “idea of perfection”: Felicity lives for physical beauty; Harley labors to subsume her vagrant “dangerous streak” into preservation of the environment and the past; Douglas worships the beauty of logical structures and the bountiful usefulness of concrete. All—including the stray dog that attaches itself to Harley—eventually discover the considerable pleasures of human (and animal) imperfection.
Wonderful entertainment: a cockeyed romance that will have you cheering for all of these unlikely, wayward lovers.